McHenry County administrators on closing schools for cold: Multiple factors go into decision

After two days of area school closings, McHenry West High School students wait Jan. 9 in single-digit weather before boarding the buses waiting outside the high school. School district administrators in McHenry County consider multiple factors before  calling off classes because of frigid temperatures threshold.
After two days of area school closings, McHenry West High School students wait Jan. 9 in single-digit weather before boarding the buses waiting outside the high school. School district administrators in McHenry County consider multiple factors before calling off classes because of frigid temperatures threshold.

Schoolchildren in northern Minnesota, Alaska and North Dakota would probably snicker, maybe to cover up an underlying envy, at the prospect of school being canceled because it’s just too cold.

Sure, it’s not unknown farther north. Minnesota’s governor ordered all schools closed one January day in 2014 because the temperature was supposed to hit 30 degrees below zero, and 60 below with the wind chill. But it had been 17 years since the last time the governor declared all schools closed statewide because of the temperature.

However, last year’s brutal cold, which popularized the term “polar vortex” despite the fact that it is not at all a new phenomenon, also seemed to popularize a trend of calling off school over frigid temperatures.

“No question. Right, wrong or indifferent, this whole ‘polar vortex’ context had a real media effect on us,” McHenry High School District 156 Superintendent Mike Roberts said.

Cold has been the main culprit behind school closings over the past two winters. Of the four “snow days” called by McHenry County public schools last year and again this year, only one was on account of excess snowfall. Because district superintendents confer with one another besides their own staff – and because no superintendent wants to be the only district with school in session – a decision to cancel is almost always countywide.

The decision to close school typically does not involve any hard numbers or a specific temperature or wind chill threshold that has to be crossed. In some instances, school was open the day after a cold-weather closure, despite the fact that the temperatures were just as cold or only slightly improved.

It boils down to adding up all the factors and concluding whether children will be safe, said Carol Smith, spokeswoman for Woodstock-based School District 200.

“The bottom line is: Will students be safe on their way to and from school?” Smith said. “We take it very seriously, and we don’t cancel school just on a whim.”

Some of the factors that area school officials cited besides temperature and snowfall are road safety, the ability of school buses to function in the cold, and how long students who rely on buses have to stand outside to wait. Temperatures around the time of bus stop pickup and drop-off weigh significantly in the ultimate decision, Fox River Grove School District 3 Superintendent Tim Mahaffy said.

“The main reason, our biggest concern, is students being out at bus stop time. If we’re going to be in session, we have to be aware of our little ones whose parents may not be able to drive them to school,” Mahaffy said.

Individual health issues aside, frostbite is a function of temperature and wind speed, according to the National Weather Service. At zero degrees, frostbite can set in on exposed skin after 30 minutes with little or no wind – if the wind reaches 10 miles an hour, frostbite becomes a risk after 10 minutes on exposed skin.

Another factor that plays a role in cold-weather closings is the changing of how and when parents get alerted to them. The age-old way of listening to the radio for the list of closings now includes email, text and social media alerts. Mahaffy said the information age can make it tough to make the call to keep school open if anticipated cold weather is being hyped on the local news.

“Unfortunately, you’ll get the television news media making statements about the dangers of cold weather, and that looks like it’s increased over the years,” Mahaffy said.

But an advantage is that parents can now learn the night before, rather than the morning of, that school has been canceled, Smith said. That gives parents much more time to make child care arrangements, if need be.

“The biggest thing that has changed over the past several years with the proliferation of social media is that we found that parents really appreciate it when we cancel school the night before,” Smith said.

Also, she said, District 200 hears a lot more gratitude than opposition from parents when school is called off on account of cold. Mahaffy said that he has maybe heard three complaints over the last eight closings from parents who believed that school should not have been canceled. Roberts said he only hears a little, but hears it both ways.

Schools are required by state law to budget five emergency days into their calendars to account for inclement weather or other reasons. Roberts said he hopes that things do not get to the point where that number is exceeded and teaching days are lost because of cold.

“If you ever have a sixth day, we’d lose a day of instruction. That would concern me,” Roberts said.

Private schools do not act much differently from their public counterparts when it comes to cold-weather closings.

Crystal Lake Montessori School, between Crystal Lake and Woodstock, cancels school if public districts do so, Principal Pamela Zirko said. Unlike school districts that have more compact and distinct district boundaries, the Montessori school’s 180 students come from all over the county, as well as from Lake and Kane counties. The student body ranges from as young as six weeks old through eighth grade.

In her 30 years with the school – the last five as principal – Zirko said she has noticed a recent shift toward cold-weather closings in recent years.

“In the past it’s been driving conditions as the reason for closing, and not so much the weather,” Zirko said.

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