D.C. Thundersnow: Schools can control everything but the weather
The modern school is built to control every fabric of the student experience. Speech codes stamp out hate. Zero-tolerance policies weed out bullies. Standardized tests snuff out professorial freelancing. Policy after policy is written to take decisions out of the hands of administrators, parents and students. Judgment is insufficient; the rules rule.
Except when snow falls.
TBD spent an afternoon trying to find policies governing snow days among regional school districts. We didn't find any. Press liaisons for Montgomery, Loudoun, Alexandria and Fairfax public schools all said they didn’t have any written guidelines. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington said Catholic schools under the archdiocese’s umbrella generally follow the lead of their county counterparts.
The lack of guidance seems unwise in light of the stakes. More than any other decision a superintendent might make, closing or keeping open a school has a direct impact on students, parents, and teachers, down to how long they all can stay in their pajamas in the morning. And each group — parents, teachers, students — will have thoughts on whether the decision was justified.
“There’s a lot of judgment involved,” when deciding whether to close school, says Dana Tofig, a spokesperson for Montgomery County Public Schools.
The schools all have similar strategies for reaching a decision on whether or not to close. They look at weather forecasts, including subscription services like AccuWeather. They get employees on the ground early throughout the county who report back to transportation and services heads. They keep in contact with other counties, so they know what kinds of road conditions teachers and staff who live elsewhere are facing. In the end, superintendents make the decisions in time for the 5 a.m. newscasts, with the safety of the students as their paramount concern.
“It’s not a gut call,” said Paul Reigner, a spokesperson for Fairfax Public Schools. “It’s based on a lot of info.”
OK, so can't the "info" that governs the decision be codified in some kind of document?
“What would it be?” Reigner asks of a written guideline. “There’s so many variables.”
For example, not all snow is created equal. The fluffy stuff is easier to drive on than hard, icy snow. Another variable is intensity: As the region discovered yesterday, a couple hours of dense, relentless white can cripple the byways. Geography matters too, as in Loudoun; Wayde Byard, spokesperson for the Loudoun schools, pointed out that the county’s western half is much more mountainous, colder and has more dirt roads than the east, so safety might not be uniform throughout the jurisdiction. And schools have to rely on the oh-so-tricky art of forecasting.
“There’s no formula that’s going to cover every weather situation,” said Byard. “No written standard could cover everything.”
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