New forecasting technology is helping superintendents better predict the arrival and duration of storms, which can make the difference between calling a snow day and calling an early release day.
Automated calling systems, Twitter, and smart phone apps also make it possible for school officials to communicate snow days or early release days to parents much more quickly than before.
These new technologies are important as changes in weather patterns result in more storms featuring a mix of precipitation and challenging driving conditions. Warming ocean temperatures may also increase the likelihood of the most intense storms, like the “bomb cyclone” last Halloween that knocked out power in some Maine regions for a week.
So far this year, in fact, for many districts, school closures have had less to do with snow than with the high winds associated with the Halloween “bomb cyclone.”
Bangor was relatively lucky, losing only two days as a result of that event, but Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said that with more than a month of winter still to go, her district has already missed six days of school because of inclement weather, roughly three times the district’s long-term average.
In Bucksport, Regional School Unit 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby said his school district has had only four snow days so far this year – generators allowed the district to hold classes in the two schools that were affected by outages caused by the Halloween storm.
Changing weather patterns or not, however, some things remain the same: snow days are popular with children (until they start cutting into summer vacation) and unpopular with their parents.
Meghan Collins of Bangor said that on nights when the forecast threatens a weather cancellation, she and her husband go to sleep with their cell phones next to their beds, waiting for the call.
As soon as they get it, usually around 5 a.m., they begin checking in with family and neighbors to see who is available to look after their two girls, one in fifth grade and the other in first grade. Collins said they consider themselves lucky because they have family and a good network of friends in the area.
Rachael Pendleton of Brewer has two boys, both of whom go to school in Bangor, one in middle school and one in grade school. She said that because she has to be at work by 5 a.m., she depends on the boys’ father or her fiancée to help ensure the boys are cared for during the day.
Pendleton said she feels relatively lucky because her boys’ father goes to work laterer and because they have friends in the area that they can trust to look after their boys.
For the most part, Pendleton said she thinks the Bangor school district does a good job of calling snow days but admits that two-hour delays are inconvenient for her family.
Webb said she tries to be sensitive to parents’ concerns, but with six snow days already this year, early release days and two-hour delays allow the district to avoid extending the school year another day into the summer.
Webb, who grew up in Maine, said one reason “snow days” are different is that winter now features much more frequent swings in temperature and icier roads than the colder, snowier winters of her childhood.
That trend is in synch with climate change models that forecast warmer temperatures and more extreme weather events, including more extreme swings in temperatures, more flooding and more intense storms.
Climate change also means more extreme precipitation events, and Maine may be getting more than its fair share of those, according to the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute’s report “Maine’s Climate Future 2015.”
As temperatures on average become warmer and intense weather events such as floods and destructive wind storms become more frequent, the “snow days” of the future may be less about snow and more about wind-related power outages or flooding, in addition to mixed precipitation events.
However the weather changes, it is not likely to affect the way superintendents decide whether to call a snow day.
For Webb, that process starts around 4 a.m. when she checks the weather maps and gets the latest forecast from the National Weather Service.
With the latest information on the forecast, Webb calls the bus company, public works and the police department for the latest on driving conditions. She also calls other area superintendents and will sometimes check road conditions personally.
By district policy, the decision on whether to call school off should be made by 6 a.m., but in practice, Webb tries to get the information out to parents between 5 and 5:30 a.m.
Once it has been decided to call a snow day, the communication process may take a half-hour or more. Webb sends out a tweet announcing the snow day, alerts parents with a mobile phone app, updates the school website and alerts six media stations. She also calls the bus company, the police department, and emails district employees.
Boothby, the superintendent of RSU 25, said by about 4 a.m. on potential snow days, he is driving the back roads, trying to get a sense of road conditions.
He also talks to the bus contractors and snow plow drivers. The most important question is whether bus drivers are comfortable with the conditions.
Much more accurate and up-to-date weather forecasts have allowed school superintendents to better understand when a storm will hit and how it will affect local conditions. Boothby said he and other superintendents have worked with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) meteorologist to better understand how to use the NOAA website and forecast.
Understanding the timing of storms can be critical. When a major storm was scheduled to hit about 2:30 p.m. on February 7, Boothby was comfortable enough with the forecast to warn parents the night before that the next day was likely to be an early release day.
After checking the forecast the next morning, Boothby confirmed the decision.
No matter how good the forecasting, though, calling snow days is still a balancing act. When he does get feedback from a parent, Boothby, like Webb, said more often than not, the parent is concerned about their child’s safety on a day he didn’t call a snow day.
When that happens, Boothby said he tells the parent that the ultimate decision lies with them. If they feel that conditions in their area are not safe, they can keep their child at home and that absence can be excused.