Friday, February 5, 2016

Snow Days

When I left for work this morning, it was pouring outside. Protecting myself with a rain coat, rain boots, and a golf umbrella, I thought of all the Chicken Littles who had cried about the "terrible storm headed our way." I thought all of the superintendents who closed school would be ridiculed for making the wrong decision. "Boy will they have egg on their faces," I mused smugly.

As I drove the eight miles to my office, I realized that I was the one who had egg on my face. During that 20 minute drive, the temperature dropped nearly 10 degrees, and the rain turned to sleet, which had turned to snow by the time I reached the office park where I spend 40 hours a week. And by the time I left the office, eight hours later? There were at least six inches of snow on the ground and the roads were a slushy, icy mess.

I used to work for a public school system just outside of Boston. One of my responsibilities was to coordinate the public announcements regarding the closure of school due to weather events.

As a result of these responsibilities, I was typically in the loop as the decision to close school was being made.

Here is how I remember it working with the superintendent for whom I worked:

Consideration 1: Safety Outside
If students and staff aren't safe, learning can't happen. The superintendent would begin listening to NOAA forecasts as soon as he got wind of  potentially disruptive weather system. He would then cross-check the forecast to affirm the trajectory and severity of the storm was verified in multiple sources. If it looked like it was definitely going to be bad, and would interfere with the safe arrival or departure from school, then either closure or an delayed opening/early dismissal was considered.

He didn't rely on meteorologists alone. Was the governor was going to call a travel ban? Was the local public transportation system, used by some students to get to school, be closed or delayed? These were also considerations, which meant staying in touch with state education, safety and transportation officials throughout the deliberations.

Consideration 2: Safety Inside 
We also considered the impact on on staff who who lived far outside of our community. Would the storm prevent them from coming to work, resulting in high absenteeism? This could create unsafe conditions for students once they safely arrived at school. If the answer was yes, then either closure or a delayed opening/early dismissal was considered.

Consideration 3: Follow the Leader
To be the only district that closes for a weather event that is a non-event opens one up to ridicule. So, the superintendent would consult trusted colleagues, particularly in the bigger or more respected districts nearby.

Consideration 4: Municipal Obligations
Municipal officials, particularly those who worked for the department of public works (DPW), also had to be considered. DPW needed adequate time to clear parking lots, sidewalks and entryways. While education is important, DPW officials typically had a first obligation to clear the streets and facilities for emergency responders, including the local hospital. If the volume of snow predicted was more than the DPW could clear before the start of school, then closure was considered. This involved countless phone calls with the mayor and superintendent of public works.

In the densely populated town where I worked, local residents were allowed to park in school lots during a declared snow emergency. This was the city strategy for keeping the roads cleared for plows. So, if the mayor was planning to declare a snow emergency, school had to be closed because there would be nowhere for staff members to park when they arrived at work. Which meant we had to stay in even closer touch with the mayor, who was undergoing his own deliberations.

Consideration 5: Convenience for Families
The decision to close school or to call for a delayed opening/early dismissal created hardships for many families, particularly those with working parents who had to scramble for childcare or negotiate alternative schedules or unpaid days off with their employers. This was a consideration not only in the decision to close school, but also in the timing of the decision. The earlier the decision to close could be made and announced, the less disruption for families.

Consideration 6: Meeting Mandatory Education Time
State laws and regulations required that children be in school for 180 days a year. The official school calendar included 185 days, to give wiggle room for up to five snow days. If there were more than five snow days in a given year, the elected school board was required to find time in the schedule to meet the mandatory 180 days of schooling. This might mean extending the school days, eroding previously scheduled holidays or vacation time, extending the school day, or even calling for weekend schooling. No school board wants to do this, because families AND the teachers' unions get up in arms about having their planned personal time taken back by the school district. Extra care was given if the decision to cancel school was going to eat into the legislated mandatory education time.

And once the decision was made, the communication plan had to be executed quickly. Where I worked, I had to alert the media so our closure or delay could be added to the lists that were published, read aloud, and/or scrolled at the bottom of a TV screen, These notifications were managed through phone automation, in which every district had a numeric code and pin number to gain access to the system. Once inside, you had to trust that the number you were choosing ("Press one for a complete closure tomorrow, press two for a delayed opening...") would be coded correctly so families who relied on the news for these announcements would get the right information.

We would then pull together the multi-lingual robo-dial announcement team, typically via conference call, to record the message that would eventually be pushed out to every family in the district. We experimented with pre-recording messages so we could just hit send when we needed to make the announcement, and found it was more effective to record each message separately so we could include the date of the closure. (Families who got the message via voice mail needed to have the exact date of the school closure recorded, so there was no confusion.)

Finally, I needed to update the District website and social properties with the announcement, and alert the City's 411 operators.

And this all had to be done rapidly, as there was no single source of information upon which families relied. The Twitter people would publicly complain if the announcement reached the television viewers before them, while the phone people would call the City's 411 system to ask why they had not yet received their robo-dial call when their neighbors had.


The decision to close school was rarely simple, although there were times when it was easy. There was always at least one constituency who criticized the move, one constituency that didn't think the message reached them quickly enough or in the right format. And, as a non-union school administrator, I nearly always had to go to work on those days when a snow emergency was called. Unless it was one in which a statewide travel ban was instituted.

When I was a child, snow days were so much fun. As a school administrator? Nothing but stress.

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