To Open or Not To Open: That’s the Question

This current winter will go on record as one of the worst disruptions to our school schedule in recent history. While it’s certainly not the worst winter ever- some old-timers claim to remember a winter in which our schools were closed for about 20 days- I’ve been thinking that it certainly must rank up there. So, I went back to School Board minutes and discovered that weather in the last decade of the 20th century was a significant challenge to our community and schools. Albemarle County Public Schools actually closed for 16 days in 1993-94 and for 12 days in 1995-96. In fact, in 1998, our schools qualified under state law to open before Labor Day because we averaged 9.2 days out of school annually, over five of ten years from 1989-1998.

While this information doesn’t provide solutions to the problems faced by today’s families regarding the closing of schools, it certainly reminds us that our situation this winter is not unique. I know our staff, students, and parents are as frustrated as their counterparts must have been during those 20th century school closings.  Whether facing childcare challenges or loss of learning time with students, we would rather see our children in school than at home on scheduled school days. However, the biggest consideration faced in making decisions about opening school is whether we are reasonably sure that almost all of our roads are safe for travel, by both bus and car.

In a county of approximately 726 square miles (almost ¾ the size of Rhode Island), weather can vary significantly from north to south to east to west – or be almost the same- on any given day.  After a major snowfall, our main highways and subdivision roads can look very ready for traffic to resume while back roads are still ice-packed and not yet “travel safe” for busloads of children. Interestingly, well over 50% of our students live in rural areas on such roads.  Of all our county roads, of which 75% are secondary and 25% are primary, gravel roads, the hardest to clear, make up 12% of all county road miles.

So, to determine whether to close schools, our transportation staff 1) monitors multiple weather forecasting centers 2)drives roads in all four quadrants of the county (sometimes at 3:30 a.m.) and, 3)consults with VDOT and local police. Information provided from all these sources informs the judgment made by the transportation director who moves a recommendation up the chain of command to me, the superintendent. All along the chain, questions are asked, more information is requested, until finally, the decision to close, or not, is made.  While childcare, instructional learning time, planned extracurricular activities, and costs are weighed, the most important consideration is whether opening school will create a greater than normal safety risk for the almost 13,000 young people who enter buses and cars to drive to and from school each day. No matter the pressure to open school, the most important question I ask each time is not whether we can get most of our children to school, but given road conditions whether we can get our children to school safely- including our less experienced high school drivers?

While closing schools, especially when our urban and suburban areas look good enough for safe travel, creates frustration, I always will err on the side of caution in this decision. No conversation haunts me as much as one with a superintendent colleague who opened schools one icy morning in which the decision could have gone either way. Several young people, car-pooling together, died in a car accident that resulted from icy conditions that morning. Was the superintendent to blame for opening school? Or, were the parents at fault for allowing a 16-year-old to drive? While such questions grabbed the attention of media and the public, those children were gone forever; a devastating loss to their families, friends, and the educators who served them.

When road conditions are problematic, to close or not close becomes a tough decision for any superintendent, particularly when days out of school start to pile up. But, when it comes to our children, I will always make a decision in favor of their safety.