On wintery school days when it is extremely cold and/or snow is accumulating, school superintendents must decide whether to hold classes or tell children to stay home. Tri States Public Radio talked to the superintendents from the West Prairie, Keokuk, and Macomb school districts to find out what factors into their decisions.
All three superintendents we spoke with cited student safety as their number one concern. Beyond that, other factors come into play.
“There are so many variables when you think about whether or not to cancel school,” said West Prairie School District Superintendent Carol Kilver.
For example, she said the district considers its bus fleet and the distances it must travel. She said some children spend close to an hour on the bus going to school and another hour coming back home.
“The last thing we want is for one of our buses to be stranded somewhere. It might take us 45 minutes to get there,” said Kilver.
Kilver said West Prairie’s geographic size also presents another challenge. She said the district covers 244 square miles so conditions can vary depending on where you are in the district.
“What’s happening in the south end of the district is not necessarily what’s happening in the north end of the district. So we have a pretty strategic plan that we do in the morning and the evenings where we run those routes, then communicate,” she said.
“And it’s very interesting to see the stark difference sometimes about what’s happening in the northern end of the district and the southern.”
Kilver said if conditions are challenging in one part of the sprawling district, she will call off classes for the entire district.
Kilver also said she will call off classes if the wind chill will be at least 20 below. She believes many other superintendents use the same figure. “(You’re looking at) how long the body will maintain temperature and hold temperature, and then the time it might take us to get to a stranded bus.”
Kilver said that unlike other school districts, West Prairie does not have a two hour delay policy. She said daycare and meals become an issue so classes are either cancelled as soon as possible or the district holds classes and they start on time.
Superintendent Christine Barnes said family issues also weigh into her decision making process. She knows if classes are called off or delayed, families might have to re-arrange their schedules.
“Sometimes you’re at risk of making a decision that people aren’t going to like,” Barnes said, adding she’s been a parent. “I understand the scramble that you go through when school is closed or delayed. But ultimately the decision is based on what’s going to keep our kids safe.”
Barnes said she does not have a specific temperature in mind when deciding whether to call off classes. But student safety becomes a concern when the temperature dips below zero and the wind makes it feel even colder
“We do have quite a large number of students who walk and that’s the concern, is them getting to school safely, without injury,” she said. “And also, running diesel buses can be very difficult in those below zero, sub-zero temperatures.”
Barnes said it can be difficult to start the buses during extreme cold and she does not want to risk having one break down while out on a route. Barnes said she conferences with the district’s Transportation Supervisor, Allen Caudill, in trying to make a decision as soon as possible so parents have time to plan. Like other school districts, Keokuk uses an alert system to contact parents directly if classes are called off and it also spreads the word through the media.
Superintendent Patrick Twomey takes a different approach to his decision-making process. He said he likes to wait before declaring whether to call off classes.
Twomey believes he can get a much better feel for conditions a few hours before sunrise than he can the night before. So he said when the forecast calls for extremely cold weather, he sets his alarm for 4:30 a.m. and is out walking the district by 5:00 a.m. He said he wears a medium coat but leaves the hat and gloves at home.
“Because I know we have a few children -- and it’s just a handful -- who have to walk that mile. I want to know what it’s like for those kids,” Twomey said.
“I don’t like being cold any more than anybody else does but if I’m just really cold, I have school. If my face hurts because it’s stinging, I know that that’s the first sign of frostbite and so I cancel school.”
He said if snow is the issue, he hops in his car. He divides the district into quadrants and drives his car along a bus route in each one of those quadrants so he knows what it might be like for bus drivers.
Twomey said he also takes into account the district’s high poverty level. He said the two meals some children get at school every day are valuable to them. He said that’s especially true on a Friday or Monday so he might push the envelope a bit on those days to make sure those students don’t go three days without nutritious meals.
Twomey said his colleagues in Minnesota told him if they canceled classes at wind chills warmer than 20 below, they would be canceling classes a lot. So, Like Kilver, he uses 20 below as a cut-off point.
Twomey is aware some people have taken to social media to criticize his decisions. He said he does not let that bother him.
“I always look at what I think is best for kids. And that’s how I make my decisions. So I’m always able to live with that,” Twomey said.
Thanks to TSPR’s Jason Parrott for contributing to this story.