Viewpoint: Many issues to consider when deciding whether to close school due to weather
On Wednesday, Dec. 9, we experienced our first true blast of winter weather. I made the decision to keep South Washington County Schools open on that day. As I anticipate there will be several more such days in our future, I would like to briefly explain the process I follow in determining whether school will remain in session or be closed on days where weather conditions are questionable.
The process begins around 4 a.m., though it actually begins even earlier as our contracted plowing services are out all night. I observe the current and predicted weather conditions; consult with district personnel in the transportation and maintenance departments, city personnel, and superintendents from surrounding districts. I then use this information to make a decision, typically by 5 a.m., but no later than 5:30 a.m., whether to keep schools open or close schools for the day.
While this is never an easy decision, and one I take very seriously, my main considerations in making this decision are as follows, and in priority order:
The safety of students and staff both from a weather perspective (temperature, wind chill and other conditions) for student walkers and riders, our ability to safely transport those students who ride our buses, and the ability of staff to arrive safely.
The importance of educating children and how significant the loss of a day of learning can be.
The precedent that is set for future days with similar circumstances and conditions given the fact that we do live in Minnesota and will experience challenging weather conditions for the next several months.
The fact that parents can and should make responsible decisions on behalf of their children that take into account their unique circumstances as to conditions and safety.
On occasion we will experience severe cold and wind chill temperatures that may necessitate closing school. While we do not have an exact temperature that is used to make this determination, I do use data and charts provided by the National Weather Service in making a decision that keeps student safety in mind. Be prepared though, I am certain we will have some days where we experience below zero temperatures and wind chills where school will be in session. Appropriate winter dress for all students is paramount under these circumstances.
Another difficulty is the road conditions and the impact they have on transportation routes. It is typical that school buses may run behind schedule due to poor road conditions. Except for unusual circumstances, all buses will run their entire route, even if this means students will be late for school.
It should be noted that a "late start" or an "early release" are not alternatives for South Washington County Schools due to the number of bus routes and staggered start times. For more information on how decisions are made, additional details are outlined on the district's Web site, which also describes the wide variety of ways we try to communicate a school closing decision. Please review and be familiar with the method that works best for you and your family.
In light of our experience on Dec. 9, I want to remind parents and staff to have contingent plans for the future. How will you care for your children if their school is not in session, but your employment obligations remain unchanged? What arrangements can be made to assure that children are properly prepared (appropriate winter dress, etc.) when school is in session under challenging winter weather conditions? We will be reviewing the adequacy of our first response to conducting school under challenging decisions, and we know we have some areas where we can improve. I encourage everyone to be thoughtful and prepared this winter season.
While I remain fully responsible for the decision I made on Dec. 9, I respectfully acknowledge those who disagreed with my decision. I know the decision to close school will never be received with unanimous support and I will always receive calls and e-mails criticizing the decision. I will do my best to make the best decision I can each time we are challenged by our Minnesota weather, but I will also respect a parent's decision to keep their child at home.
Yes, our Minnesota winter is here and I am sure we will face more tough decisions in the future. My commitment to our students, parents and families is to make the best decision and communicate it as quickly and effectively as we can. You should always assume that school will be in session...until you hear otherwise.
For more information on district policies on school closings go to: www.sowashco.k12.mn.us
Mark Porter is the superintendent for School District 833. His "New Beginnings, High Expectations" column appears occasionally in the Woodbury Bulletin.