Mother Nature’s Relationship with Schools

It was late January of 2013.  I was in my final year as a high school principal, and was being mentored by the current superintendent.  I would be taking over his position upon his retirement after the school year.   I had repeatedly joked with him that the hardest part of his job was deciding whether or not to cancel or have school during inclement weather.   I can remember saying; “If the hardest decision I need to make will be to call off school or not, this job should be pretty easy.” 
Even though I was joking, I now get to eat those words a few times every year.  In actuality, weather related decisions are some of the hardest decision I have had to make in the last two years.  The other day was no different.   With a Blizzard Warning to our north and west, and a Winter Weather Advisory forecasted for our area I awoke at 5am to see snow falling at a moderate rate.  We were set to receive somewhere between 1 and 3 inches of snow overnight, and ended up with about an inch.  The wind was light, but was predicted to pick up throughout the day.
Immediately I started to feel anxiety.  I knew we could get the kids to school with no problems, but worried what it would be like after we got them there.   I looked at the weather forecast and glanced at the current school closures and late starts in our area.  I then contacted our transportation coordinator and we made the decision to go ahead with starting school on time.
Success!  We were able to get the kids to school on time.  However, my anxiety did not fade.  Of course I was worried what the rest of the day was going to bring.  The wind picked up throughout the day.  The visibility ranged from 500ft to about 3 miles depending on where you were.  I paced for much of the day.  We also had a Girls Basketball event scheduled for the night in a city about 45 minutes away. 
I decided that we would allow school to be let out at 2:45pm with the idea that our busses would have more time to get kids home before the sun set.  I also decided that it was in our best interest to postpone the basketball game.
These types of decisions affect many people.  If you cancel school, parents need to find alternative ways to find childcare for their children during the day.  Often time’s parents need to take off work.  With fewer employees at work, the businesses also take a hit.  Basically school related decisions affect the entire town.  Making that final decision is a bit stressful, but I have come up with the following tips to make the process a bit easier.
1.      Always error on the side of caution.  Children safety must always be the top priority.  At the end of the day, it is not about whether someone can get to work or not.  It is not about a local business being able to be open or not.  It is about our children and their safety.

2.      Activities should play very little in the decision.  You can always re-schedule (sometimes difficult, but something usually works out).

3.      Use the rural community as an important information piece.  Facebook allows me to keep an open dialogue about road conditions in and around our area.

4.      Network with other Superintendents (schools).  They can be a great resource.  Not only have many of them been in the situation a number of times, they also can give you great insight as to what the weather is doing in their neck of the woods.

5.      With number 4, do not be afraid to be the lone wolf.  The weather can be completely different a mile away.  School districts are different in terms of demographics.  Some schools have mostly urban students and teachers, and others it is the complete opposite.

6.      Admit mistakes.  Mother Nature is unpredictable.  Wrongful school decisions will happen, but as I mentioned in number 1, if you error on the side of caution you cannot go wrong.

7.      Remind parents that they always reserve the right to keep their children home or drive them in themselves.

I’ve come a long ways in two years, but every situation is unique and difficult.  I have called upon my mentor and former superintendent a few times for guidance, and I’m positive that he chuckles when he hangs up the phone.  He remembers how easy I said it was going to be.  I’m afraid that Mother Nature heard me joke about this as well and I will be paying for it until the day that I retire.
Photo by Linda Olson – Great Teacher & Better Friend

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