How Do Schools Decide When To Close In Bad Weather?

Feb 16, 2015

Dozens of schools were closed again in Vermont on Monday. The culprit this time was the low temperature, not heavy snowfall. Bitter cold makes starting buses and heating school buildings a big challenge.

The unusually brutal winter has forced many administrators to make tough decisions about whether to cancel classes and sport events. So how do they do that, as the school day dawns?

Most superintendents and principals are not meteorologists, so many log onto a detailed website for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and type in the relevant zip code to get a color coded map showing how a storm may play out. Then, says South Burlington Superintendent Dave Young, the decision-making starts.

“High volumes of snow per hour, coupled with … high wind and/or icing conditions will move us to the school closing decision,” he says.

"High volumes of snow per hour, coupled with … high wind and/or icing conditions will move us to the school closing decision." - South Burlington Superintendent Dave Young

Young makes his decisions in sync with neighboring school districts in Chittenden County. But he is mindful of local differences in transportation options. For example, while South Burlington owns its own bus fleet and makes sure the engines — like classrooms — are kept warm on frigid nights, other schools may contract with bus companies that cannot guarantee timely starts. So far, South Burlington has lost only one day to snow. But Young says there was another day that probably should have been canceled, but wasn't.

“You know that snow that wasn’t predicted until coming at 7 at night came at, I’m going to say, 2 or 2:30, which made it difficult. But I have to say the forecasting is so much better than it used to be,” Young says.

But in very rural districts where topography varies more from school to school, forecasting can be off the mark. On frigid days, school officials in high poverty areas also worry that kids may not dress warmly enough to avoid frostbite at a bus stop. Superintendent Meg Powden, in Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, depends as much on local advice as on Internet weather maps.

“Really, I count on the transportation director and the road crew foreman -- or foreperson, maybe I should say -- to let me know what the conditions are in the morning,” Powden says.

Some teachers and parents wonder, though, if drivers who make their living plowing through all kinds of weather are impartial judges of road conditions for more typical drivers.

Eastern Vermont has seen more school closures in general this year than areas west of the Green Mountains. Caledonia North Supervisory Union, for example, has already lost four days out of the five set aside for snow, so if more cold and blizzards cancel classes, a few days might have to be added to the school calendar.

Superintendent Victoria Scheufler says in general, when one school closes in the CNSU, they all close. But if she does not shut down the whole union, individual principals are allowed to close their own schools, if local weather is dangerously cold or snowy.