It should come as no surprise to anyone that we have had a very challenging winter. The month of January has created havoc with our school schedules with four snow days, the most that we have had in several years. Currently, we have not had a complete week of school in 2011 and we have two months of winter to go!
Over the last few weeks, I have received several questions about snow days, delays, the condition of our roofs, and the effect of snow days on the school calendar. I would like to take this opportunity to answer some of those questions and clarify some misperceptions. The bottom line in determining if school will be cancelled is if it is safe enough for students to get to school, remain safely in school, and then be dismissed in a safe manner.
1. What factors do you take into account when you call off school?
It seems that each storm this winter has provided a different challenge as to whether or not school should be cancelled. To determine if school will be cancelled, I collect a significant amount of data, beginning about 36 hours before the storm is ready to hit our area. Some of the data I collect includes:
- Hourly weather reports from a variety of sources including NOAA, the Weather Channel , and WBZ which gives me data on when the storm will hit, the amount per hour, how long it will last, and the type of snow (powdery, more heavy, mixed)
- The timing of when the storm will start and end.
- Discussing road, sidewalk, and school parking lot conditions with the Reading Department of Public Works. The DPW is in charge of plowing all parking lots, sidewalks, and roads adjacent to the schools.
- Knowing when the DPW plows will be on the roads to begin plowing. Contracted plow drivers are not always readily available and it sometimes takes about an hour for them to begin plowing once a “plowable” amount of snow is on the ground.
- Discussing outside school conditions with the Director of Facilities. The school department is in charge of snow removal adjacent to the school building, including walkways and stairs.
- Talking to several local Superintendents to determine what they may do and the challenges that they are facing.
- Talking to the Reading Police Department to discuss safety conditions on the roads
- Determining if parents are able to get their children to school or are children able to walk to school. Reading does not have a lot of school bus transportation, so this piece of data is critical.
Sometimes, the data that I have collected is so obvious that I can call a snow day the night before. Unfortunately, because this is New England, weather forecasts can change and if there is any doubt, the decision needs to wait until the morning.
2. When is a delay considered?
A delay is considered when a little more time is needed by the DPW and school custodial/maintenance staff to ensure that the parking lots and school areas are cleared or when families are still digging out and that extra hour or two would help getting children to school on time. This was the case a few weeks ago when we had the one hour delay. It seemed that families needed a little more time to “dig out”. A delay counts as a school day.
3. When is a release considered?
A release is a very difficult call, particularly in a town like Reading which has very few busses. Most of the time, it is safer to keep the students at school for the entire day where there is a regular routine and scheduled supervision and transportation at the end of the day, rather than let them go home early and take the risk of children not being able to get transportation home or access to their home. I also have to take into account when the peak of the storm will hit the region. For example, last week, the peak of the storm was in the middle of the school day and it lessened at the end of the school day. On days like this, parents always have the option of dismissing their child early and we encourage that option if they feel that is best for their child and family situation.
4. What counts as a school day? Do we have to go until July?
According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the school calendar has to have a minimum of 180 school days and a minimum of 900 hours of instructional time for elementary students and 990 hours for middle/high school students. Therefore, we have both a day requirement and an hour requirement that we must follow. Currently, our last day of school is June 23 and all four of our built-in snow days have been used. From this point forward, we will need to add a day for each snow day that we use. Unfortunately, we cannot add hours to early release days to equal an additional day because those days already count as part of the 180 days.
There is also no state regulation as to the date when school needs to end. Technically, if we continue to have additional snow days, the school year could be extended past June 30th. Before we reach that point, we would attempt to identify alternative days in the calendar (i.e. vacations, holidays, Saturdays).
5. What is the condition of our school roofs?
Over the last several days, we have taken a proactive approach on each roof by removing high snow drifts, clearing roof drains, and addressing other areas that could be a concern. We have been using both our own custodial/maintenance staff, as well as, outside contractors to address these concerns.
This weekend, we will continue to reduce the amount of snow on our roofs by using all available staff, hiring additional contractors, and using other support services. We are aware of the weight bearing load for each school roof and we will make sure that enough snow will be removed to be well below those limits. Our goal will not be to eliminate all of the snow on each roof, but to continue to make sure that all of our school roofs are safe.
While we are on the topic of snow, I want to put out a kudos to our custodial/maintenance staff, under the direction of Director of Facilities Joe Huggins and Assitant Director DJ Cacciapuotti who have put in a significant amount of time over the last several days to address snow removal both during storms, as well as, on our roofs.
Let’s hope that Mother Nature has gotten the snow out of her system!