As a school superintendent, I am accustomed to making some pretty tough decisions on a regular basis. When winter comes along, one decision that is especially difficult is whether or not to close schools due to inclement weather.
The reason why I dread seeing snowflakes is that any decision to close or keep schools open when bad weather is imminent will result in somebody being unhappy. While a decision must be made, we know that it’s not possible to please everyone.
Those of you who have lived in our area for any amount of time know that weather forecasting can be an inaccurate science. Weather fronts might come off the ocean, down from the arctic, or through the Columbia Gorge, bringing with them varying amounts of freezing rain, wind, snow or ice, or a combination of all of that. Additionally, the geographically varied Battle Ground school district extends 275 square miles from almost sea level in the south to near Mount St. Helens in the north.
When bad weather is forecasted by local weather experts, our primary concern is for the safety of our students, staff and families. We have many students who walk to school on a daily basis, stand at bus stops or even drive themselves to high schools. We have staff on the road very early in the morning, and parents dropping off and picking up students.
Even though canceling school may sound like the simplest thing to do if there is a chance of poor weather, closing schools has several implications. First and foremost would be the fact that in Washington, students must attend 180 days of school; so any missed days must be made up. We do not have to go too far back in time to recount an unusually stormy winter with 11 missed days that nearly caused school to go into July. Cancelling school also potentially interrupts school projects, teacher planning, sports and activities and Community Education events. We also realize that it can dramatically affect a parent’s work day, and often leaves parents scrambling to adjust day care hours.
The process of deciding what to do starts very early when inclement weather is forecasted. I and other district leaders closely follow local weather forecasts, often the night before poor weather is expected. In an ideal world, the weatherman would definitively say the night before that several inches of snow or ice will fall the next day. This would make our life much easier, and we could make the announcement that evening, posting cancellations on social media and our website and getting out our phone calls. Unfortunately, our Northwest weather tends to be less predictable, and we usually hear from our weather forecasters that, “things can change very quickly overnight.”
If we do receive information from forecasters or images from weather satellites that the weather could be dicey the next day, we put our process in motion. Drivers from our bus company head out onto the roads at 2 a.m. to drive routes and look for potential trouble spots. By 4:15 a.m. the transportation supervisors call other school districts to get their thoughts. By 4:45 a.m. our director of transportation is on the phone with me and our director of communication, feeding us the information from our bus company and giving us its recommendation.
At this point we must choose one of several options: close the whole district, do a two-hour late start, close or late start part of the district, put buses on snow routes, do a late start with the potential of closing later that morning, or start school on time. Our decision must be made by 5 a.m. because it takes about 30 minutes to set our phone calls and get the information posted on the website and social media and to the news and television outlets by 5:30 a.m., and another 30 minutes for our phone system to automatically call the households of all 13,000-plus families. We have buses that must hit the road and staff who leave their homes by 6 a.m., so an early decision is critical.
However, as we have experienced, making an early decision has its drawbacks. We know that the weather can change quickly, and deciding at 5 a.m. to close schools for potential snow could backfire if the sun comes out by the time our first school opens at 7:45 a.m., or the reverse if snow comes down hard by 8 a.m. when none was predicted just a few hours earlier.
Compounding the decision is the different elevations across our district and the potential for student drivers and staff having to go from slick roads at higher elevations to schools in lower elevations. Having to “split” the district for a closure or late start is not ideal, but it is the reality of having such a geographically varied school district.
My hope is that when winter weather strikes, everyone will realize that our primary concern is always the safety of our students and staff, but that Mother Nature is often unpredictable and, I believe, very determined to make a Superintendent’s life frustrating for a few months of the year.
Mark Ross is the superintendent for Battle Ground Public Schools.