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Decisions, decisions: when weather forces school delays, closures

Stacy M. Brown | 2/27/2015, 6 a.m.
Snowstorms and extreme cold can create a situation that makes it unsafe for students, parents and staff to travel to ...
Make sure children are dressed in warm layers during periods of extreme cold

— Snowstorms and extreme cold can create a situation that makes it unsafe for students, parents and staff to travel to and from school.

So, with forecasters predicting the Baltimore area isn’t out of the woods just yet, with the possibility of more bone-chilling temperatures, students and even school officials must still think about potential delays and closings.

“Due to the extreme weather this season, there have been several two hour delays,” said Edie House-Foster, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Public School District. “To date, we’ve had two full-day closings.”

Mychael Dickerson, the chief communications officer for the Baltimore County Public School District, said while schools in that district rarely close because of low temperatures, it must take into consideration the safety of students when deciding whether to have a two hour delay or to cancel school for the day.

“If we close, it’s because the temperatures caused other issues, such as issues getting the boiler started or a pipe bursting,” Dickerson said.

Meanwhile, some 1,350 miles away in a place known as the nation’s “Ice Box,” the past several days have brought real-feel temperatures down to between -30 and -40 degrees below zero. When asked how many school delays or closures residents have experienced this year, Minnesota’s International Falls School District Superintendent Kevin Grover gave a response that’s almost certain to raise eyebrows, at least locally.

“None. Zero,” he said.

“We don’t have a hard and set boom, where we say we’re canceling school or we will have a delay,” Grover said. “The wind and road conditions are factored in but we have extra buses always at the ready.”

Grover said while it’s not a hard and fast rule, officials in his district would consider canceling or delaying the start of school if the combined thermometer reading and wind chill factor equals -50 degrees.

“In the past, if it was 40 below zero that would apply in making the decision to close. [Monday] it was 20 below zero and -37 with the wind chill, but we still had school.”

Attendance usually is at or near 100 percent even with those conditions, but Grover said the district pretty much leaves it up to students and parents to decide if they will attend. If not, there’s usually no punishment, he said.

While snow day closings have long been a staple of local winters, shutting schools or delaying the start because of bone-chilling cold has fast become normal because officials said the cold has the potential to cause some serious problems for students trying to get to school.

“We’ll get calls from folks who say where they live the sidewalks are clear and they’re fine,” Dickerson said. “But, we’re a big county and some of our kids have to walk to school and in some areas it may not be conducive to walking.”

Well before daybreak, staff from the city schools’ operations office assesses road conditions, neighborhood sidewalks, school parking lots, and school walkways and obtain input from the Baltimore City Department of Transportation and the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, House-Foster said.

The schools’ CEO or someone designated reviews the assessment and the most current weather forecasts available, and makes the decision whether to open schools on schedule, delay opening schools for two hours, or close schools, she said.

“The CEO or designee also determines whether conditions are sufficiently severe to warrant a closing or delayed opening of district offices where students do not regularly attend,” House-Foster said.

However, in Minnesota, it takes more than just a blizzard or sub-zero temperatures.

“We do well,” Grover said. “We’re used to this weather.”