2018-01-05 / Columns

Many factors in school cancellation decisions

Superintendent’s Spotlight
By Kathryn Hawes Special to the Post

The determination of a snow day is a decision that always draws attention; And, rightfully so, as it reaches into the homes of nearly 3,000 staff and students at a very early hour.

Even though the decision is made with staff and student safety in mind, it is often inconvenient and disappointing.

If a snow day is not called and the driving is slippery, extra time is needed and the commute is difficult. If a snow day is called, families have an immediate need for childcare, staff have meetings and lessons to reschedule and special events, sports and extracurricular activities are postponed.

However, it is a decision made with information gathered from multiple sources and conversations with ten other people that is thought to be in the best interest and safety of the students and staff in our district.

When snow is predicted, I set multiple alarms for 3:30 a.m. Within a few minutes, my husband tires of the alarms and my yellow lab gets excited to begin the day.

I move downstairs to the couch. With my coffee, slippers and 85 pound lapdog, I pull out my phone and computer to begin the decision-making process.

By 3:45 a.m. I have spoken with our consulting meteorologist, Russ Murley, to get a specific forecast for our three towns.

Simultaneously, our transportation supervisor, Sandy Fecteau, is speaking with the director of public works for each of the three towns.

They have crews on the roads reporting back to them even at this early hour.

Sandy provides me an update on the road conditions and the ability of public works to keep up with the storm. By 4 a.m. I talk with superintendents from five surrounding districts who have also been up for 30 minutes, engaged in a similar process.

• We work through all of the unknowns:

• Will daylight help?

• Might it turn to rain?

• Could we get in a late start?

• How can we call a snow day at 4 a.m. when it hasn’t started snowing yet?

• If we can get kids into school, what is predicted for the drive home?

I have about 30 more minutes to consider the information at hand and to get their input. The RSU 21 bus drivers leave home about 4:30 a.m. to get to the buses ready to roll.

Once the decision is made, I notify the bus drivers, post it on the district web page, and push it out on Twitter.

Next, I notify the three news channels and schedule an alert to phone and email about 3,000 parents and staff members.

The computer system can take up to 30 minutes to make these calls and there is a delicate balance between calling people too early and not reaching them until after they have showered, shoveled or cleared off their vehicles.

Inevitably, regardless of my decision, not everyone is happy. And, if I have called a snow day, hopefully, it keeps snowing. If I have not canceled, hopefully, it stops as predicted.

With every snow day student learning is impacted. Continuity in a student’s education is important and there’s something about the energy of being in school every day. However, a snow day here or there won’t hurt student learning, said Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In 2014, he studied eight years of school closures in Massachusetts and found snow days caused no harm. In fact, Goodman found that teachers understood how to adjust their lesson plans and prioritize must-learn material.

When I make the difficult decision to close school due to weather, it is always with safety at the forefront and the belief that our very talented teachers have the ability to adjust classroom instruction so that our students are not impacted educationally.

Dr. Kathryn Hawes is superintendent for Regional School Unit 21.

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