May 21, 2018
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Closing school for weather: The anatomy of a decision

By Leslie H. Dixon, Sun Journal

OXFORD, Maine — The decision to close schools in the Oxford Hills School District takes a lot more work than looking out the window to see if it’s snowing.

The decision is not always that cut and dried, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett said Friday morning.

As in other districts across Maine, school buses must travel hundreds of miles of roads each day to and from the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and middle school in Paris, plus the eight elementary schools that in Norway, Oxford, Otisfield, Harrison, West Paris, Hebron and Waterford.

When storms have not started early in the morning, the decision to close school becomes especially problematic.

“We’re getting information about three or four in the morning,” said Hartnett, who was at the administration office in Oxford early Friday morning.

The information gathering starts with a call from Superintendent Rick Colpitts to a meteorologist in the early morning hours to gauge the weather pattern. Then Colpitts and Hartnett talk with the school transportation director, who has been in touch with the highway departments in the eight towns to determine road conditions.

“We put that all together and try to assess start times and match them up with when kids would be on the road,” Hartnett said.

While some might wonder why the Oxford Hills School District could not have had a half day Friday, Hartnett said early release would mean some students would be on the school bus by 11 a.m. while other schools would not be able to dismiss children until noon or 12:30 p.m.

With some bus runs an hour to an hour and 20 minutes long, Hartnett said some students might still be on the roads at 1:30 p.m. when the storm was expected to intensify.

Once the decision to close school is made, Hartnett said the superintendent records a message that has the date on it and any other information, such as other school event closings. The date ensures that parents know the call is notifying them of no school on that particular day, he said.

Then the message is sent out to parents and staff who are on a list to receive special phone calls or emails. The information is also sent to the media for distribution.

Some staff, such as maintenance, are called first because of the nature of their jobs.

The announcement of school closure goes out by 5 a.m. or 5:15 a.m. because the first students are being picked up by buses as early as 6 a.m., Hartnett said.

Friday was the fifth snow day for the Oxford Hills district this school year. The school calendar has six snow days written into it, he said.

Students can miss up to six days of the mandated 175 because of weather-related events, but will have to make up any more at the end of the school year.

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