'Tis the season: Digging into school snow days
School snow days can be a source of excitement for students, but they can be the bane of parents and administrators — the adults who have to make the call to cancel classes or make other arrangements to care for their children.
In recent years, local school districts have had to cancel more school than in previous years after an increased number of storms and snowfall.
According to Craig Evanego, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College, there was relatively light snowfall in the winters of 2010-11 and 2011-12, but the plows got a workout during the past three winters. In 2013-14, York County experienced 43.9 inches of snowfall, and in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the area saw a little more than 39 inches each year.
The higher totals corresponded to an uptick in the number of days school was canceled because of weather conditions, according to information provided by eight of the 16 school districts in York County.
Administrators: Whether to cancel school for snow or extreme cold is not an easy decision for the superintendents who make those calls.
York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes said the decision causes sleepless nights and a lot of worry about whether he has made the right call. His first priority is always the safety of students, he said.
Schools do build in makeup days in expectation of extreme weather throughout the year. These are often tacked onto long weekends, such as the Presidents Day holiday in February. Most schools also use the week following the last day of classes as a possible week of makeup days. Holmes said his district has students attend classes 185 days each year, five days more than the 180 required by the state, which adds an extra cushion of days if a year has particularly bad weather.
However, if schools go through their makeup days, they might need to extend the school year further into the summer or shorten breaks, such as spring break. This can cause issues for families who have planned vacations during those times.
Making of a snow day: Holmes and West York School District Superintendent Emilie Lonardi said their days begin at 4 a.m. when a cancellation is possible. Many times it's not even snowing yet, but the two will begin making calls to local weather services, bus contractors and other superintendents to talk about the approaching storm.
Lonardi said she has to do her best to predict what the weather will be like when buses are on the road an hour or two later. She'll talk to a meteorologist about when the storm is expected to hit West York, how many inches of snow the area will get and how quickly that snow will fall.
As the morning progresses, superintendents talk with other districts that have comparable terrain to see what they might do. They get updates from teachers and other employees on how the roads look throughout the county, not just in the district, because many employees will have to brave the elements for a long drive. Lonardi said she also thinks of the older students who drive to school and how well they will handle slippery conditions.
Each district has a unique set of things to worry about when it comes to snow days. The York City School District is primarily a walking district, so Holmes drives around the city to see how sidewalks look at 4 or 5 a.m. The city district might cancel school even if there is no snow on the ground, simply because it is too cold for students to spend any extended period outside.
West York School District is mostly a suburban area, so Lonardi explained she might cancel school even if it's no longer snowing because snowplow buildup can make it impossible for buses to get around sharp corners. Meanwhile, more rural districts such as Spring Grove and Red Lion have hilly areas with sharp turns that can cause them to cancel classes even if the roads in town are cleared.
Parents: While superintendents try their best to make the decision as early as possible, it always depends on the weather. Lonardi will try to issue the cancellation the night before if there's no doubt a huge storm is coming, but neither Lonardi nor Holmes wants to cancel school for a storm and have it end up just raining.
"There have been occasions over the years where a snowstorm was predicted and it just rained, or when it wasn’t predicted and kids were here and we were getting snow and had to send kids home early," Holmes said. "You try to make the best decision and you use info from weather service."
While a snow day means a fun day off for kids, it can lead to added stress for parents, which is why superintendents try to make the best decision as early as possible and then stick to it. Parents might need to locate additional child care or call off from work themselves in the event of a snow day.
Lonardi said she recognizes those stresses and typically won't change her mind. For example, if she decides to delay the district's opening, she tries not to then cancel school during the delay because parents have already made certain arrangements.
Melissa Rangel is a York Township resident who sends her 7-year-old daughter to school in the Dallastown Area School District. Because she also has a 20-month-old son, she has day care lined up for both children. Her son goes all day and her daughter goes before and after school while Rangel works.
Though a snow day doesn't send her scrambling to find day care, she does appreciate knowing for certain as early as possible. Rangel said if the storm is particularly bad, the day care she sends her children to might decide to close for the day. Even if the day care does remain open, it's an additional cost to have her daughter stay there for the entire day, something for which Rangel might need to plan.
"It does cost more; they charge all day if they have a snow day," Rangel said.
Safety first: The decision to cancel school is difficult because no matter what, superintendents are trying hard to make the best decision for the safety of the students. They worry about not canceling school and having students traveling through poor conditions or canceling school and leaving students home alone with no supervision if they don't make the call early enough.
Evanego, of the weather service, said no matter what, everyone needs to take their time on snowy or icy days, particularly if they are driving. Pedestrians who walk to school need to walk carefully in case of ice and bundle up. That warning is particularly important this week, because Evanego said a cold stretch is expected Thursday and Friday that could bring temperatures that feel below zero with wind chill.
For bus drivers, older students, teachers and parents who might be driving to school, taking it slow on the roads is important, too.
"Plan extra time if the roads are suboptimal," Evanego said.
Lonardi asked that parents and staff be patient with superintendents as they make the call.
"If parents and teachers could know it’s a very difficult decision and superintendents are trying to make the best decision with the info they have at the time we have them, that would help," she said. "Give us the benefit of the doubt."