How school districts decide on weather-related delays, cancellations

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Weather-related school delays and closings are rarely convenient, but there is a method to how those tough decisions are made.

Dr. Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, says few decisions are simple.

“The easiest decision is when there is 12 inches of snow on the ground – make the call the night before and get a little extra sleep in the morning,” said DiRocco, who served 14 years as superintendent of the Lewisburg Area School District. “When you get extreme temperatures like we’re seeing right now, then you have to factor in other variables. How many of your kids walk to school? Can they be outside without exposure to potential frostbite? Sometimes there are frostbite advisories.”

DiRocco says aside from the weather’s effect on students and staff, including crossing guards who spend extended periods of time outside, arctic air can have a potentially dangerous impact on a school district’s fleet of vehicles.

“You have to consider the age of your school vehicles, your school buses and vans,” DiRocco said. “I know on many a morning, we had school buses and vans that wouldn’t start. What if a school bus would break down?”

Infrastructure is also a factor in determining whether a superintendent will issue a delay or cancellation. According to DiRocco, many school districts have energy-saving programs that automatically turn off lights and reduce heating during the evening hours when buildings are empty.

“In those cases, you can’t just crank the heat up to 74 in the morning and expect it to warm the whole building instantly,” he said. “I remember dealing with issues where my maintenance supervisor would call me and they couldn’t get the buildings up to normal heating levels. They needed an extra hour to get the buildings warm.”

DiRocco says in many cases, several superintendents in neighboring school districts will make a joint decision when issuing delays or cancellations. For instance, if several schools send students to the same technical school or share special education resources, the closure of several schools but not another could cause disruptions in transportation and programs.

Sometimes, conflicts cannot be avoided, such as when one school district in the group experiences much more snow accumulation than the others due to geography. DiRocco says modern communication channels, namely being able to instantly text or email via a smartphone, have made the process faster, but not perfect.

“In 14 years as a superintendent, I can tell you that is the single part of the job that never got easier,” DiRocco said. “We understand that it tremendously inconvenienced parents, especially working parents. From my perspective, I always tried to err on the side of safety. I was willing to put up with a few unpleasant phone calls.”

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