Closing schools for weather an 'imperfect science'

URBANA — The call went out around 8:20 p.m. Thursday: Urbana schools would be open on Friday.

Two hours later, the forecast for Friday morning shifted, pushing wind chills drastically lower. To about minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

And so began Don Owen's fitful night: waking again at 2:30 a.m. to check wind chill forecasts. And again at 4 a.m. As the clock ticked closer to 5 a.m., the wind chill forecast shifted back up to about minus 11 degrees.

"I was nervous," he said.

So what else does a school superintendent do at 4:45 a.m.?

He put on a pair of pants (one layer, because he needs to dress like a student and let's face it, not all students will wear long underwear under their jeans to school) and two layers up top. Then he set out on foot from his home in Urbana to four different schools.

By the time he returned home, his concern had eased. Sure, the Urbana schools superintendent was cold, "but never was there any point when I felt I was in trouble."

On Friday, Urbana and Champaign schools reopened while Danville schools remained closed another day.

Weather room

Making that call — for schools to close or open on severely cold or snowy days — is "an imperfect science," said Unit 7 Schools Superintendent Andrew Larson, who answered his phone Friday with the greeting, "Weather Room."

"Most of the times you're darned if you do and darned if you don't," he said. And there will always be critics on both sides of the argument, he said.

On Friday, he sent a letter to district parents explaining several points. Included among them was the school's responsibility to educate children, but also that student safety "is the most important component in everything we do."

Larson and other superintendents take into account road conditions, ambient temperature and wind chill.

"If we have clean roads, warm buses and warm buildings, the factor becomes the bus stops," Larson said.

Unit 7 is a big, rural district (175 square miles), and about two-thirds of the 1,750 students ride buses to schools. And some of those students transfer buses at different points.

Because of the recent severe cold, the district has two backup buses and two backup drivers ready to go pick up students if a bus breaks down on the route. If that happens, the stranded group shouldn't have to wait more than five to 10 minutes, Larson said.

"There's really no magic number for snow," said Danville schools Superintendent Mark Denman. But for temperature, "as a general rule of thumb, we use 20 degrees below" zero, he said.

"We have a lot of students who are out at bus stops or walk to school," Denman said. That's "well over" half of the 6,200 students in the district, he said.

"We were out the last couple of days because of the wind chill. In a short period of time, someone can get frostbite," he said.

Don Owen often turns to the National Weather Service wind chill chart that was issued in 2001. The chart "really helps explain what is a danger and what isn't in terms of the amount of time outside," he said.

A Minnesota native, he knows the danger of being exposed to cold and wind. While skiing as a high school student, his ear turned black from frostbite.

Owen, who stopped by Thomas Paine School on Friday morning and reminded several students to wear their hats, said he has sent messages out to parents and guardians stressing the importance of working together as a community to make sure students are dressed appropriately.

Here's Owen's blog post explaining the decision to close.

On bitterly cold or snowy days, area superintendents are in constant communication with each other via phone, emails and texts, they said. Champaign and Urbana school districts tend to make the same decision when it comes to closing or remaining open, although it has happened in the past when they came to different decisions.

Superintendents also touch base with other staff members and contractors. Denman consults with Toby Wolfe, the head of transportation at First Student Inc., which provides bus service for the Danville schools.

"He's also out driving some of the rural routes," he said. "If there's a problem, he'll call me by 5:30 (a.m.) at the latest."

Five days

It's possible even more cancellations will be coming. The National Weather Service's forecast for Monday calls for a high of 1. Tuesday's outlook is not much better, with an expected high near 4.

School districts have built into their calendars five "snow days" or emergency weather-related closings. Urbana has had three weather-related closings so far. Catlin's at six.

"Like (Westville schools Superintendent) Jim Owens said, I think we're making up for the last two years this year. ... Last year, we may have used one, if that," said Gary Lewis, the Catlin schools chief.

Lewis also monitors weather reports and road conditions and consults with Carl Chambliss, the Catlin Township highway commissioner. He, too, uses 20 below to gauge whether to call off school.

When districts exhaust their emergency days and have to call off school another day due to bad weather or some circumstance, such as a power outage, they can petition the local regional superintendent's office and Illinois State Board of Education for an "Act of God" day, said Vermilion County Regional Superintendent Cheryl Reifsteck.

"It just can't be done in advance," she said, adding the reason has to be out of their control.

Lewis said Catlin officials are looking at petitioning for an "Act of God" day or possibly even shortening spring break.

"We want to get the kids back in class," he said. "But the main thing is kids' safety."

School's out

Three factors superintendents consider when closing a school for a weather emergency:

Road conditions. Danville schools Superintendent Mark Denman goes so far as driving the city's streets before the sun comes up, as he just did in the wee hours Tuesday morning. "I wanted to make sure the roads and everything looked safe," he said, "and on that day they did."

Wind chills. Although there is no magic number when it comes to temperature or wind chill, some area superintendents said for they tend to cancel when it's minus 20 with the wind chill.

Ambient temperature. Decision-makers will be put to the test again next week, with a high of 1 predicted for Monday and 4 on Tuesday.

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Education

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toddeds wrote on January 25, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Appreciate all the thoughtful preparation our superintendents engage in to help keep our students safe during this difficult winter!

 

sweet caroline wrote on January 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm

I had no idea how much careful planning and thought have to go into making a decision on closing schools.  Guess it just didn't occur to me.  I'm humbled to learn the predicament closing or not closing the school can put a school superintendent in,  knowing whatever decision is made, some parents will be upset.  Thank you, school superintendents, all of you, for keeping our children safe.