Column: Reconsider closing schools for ‘cold days’

One of the toughest decisions for a school superintendent is to close the schools because of the weather.

Don Heinzman
Don Heinzman

For years, the superintendent checked with their transportation director to see if the buses could operate and with the weather bureau on snowy mornings and made the decision.

They called those days off “snow days.”

Rarely did superintendents close schools because of cold weather.

That all changed Jan. 18, 1994, when Gov. Arne Carlson ordered Minnesota public schools closed when morning air temperatures were below zero and the wind chill was 48 below.

He closed schools because of cold weather two more days on Feb. 2, 1996, and Jan. 16, 1997.

Gov. Mark Dayton gave plenty of warning Jan. 6, 2014 when the weather bureau predicted wind chills at Twin Cities International Airport could plunge to 48 degrees below zero with an air temperature of 22 below and 15 mph wind.

The following day, superintendents canceled classes when wind chill of 28 below was expected.

Schools were canceled at many locations Jan. 23, and again Jan. 27 and Jan. 28, because of the cold weather.

So, there is a new criteria for closing schools – “cold days.”

Because of “cold days,” school officials are scrambling to schedule makeup days to meet minimum school teaching day requirements. Minnesota schools average 175 days of teaching.

Safety of students and staff is the superintendents’ main concern in calling off school. Predicted severe wind chills should be taken into account. It is up to the parents to decide if their children should be kept at home. Weather absences are excusable.

All that said, some are asking why should governors close schools one day and leave that same decision the following days up to superintendents?

Roger Giroux, retired superintendent of schools from the Anoka-Hennepin School District and a member of the ECM Publishers Inc. Editorial Board, asks: What constitutes a cold day and what should be the break point on the wind chill?

He suggests that some students are safer at school on “cold days.” Many parents need to have the schools open as a safe place for their children when they are working.

Cold days and snow days don’t present the same challenges, and the application of “cold day school closing” needs more review before the next winter. The practice of makeup days also needs review.

Giroux suggests school boards should consider adopting policies on closing school because of cold temperatures, allowing that schools should be closed if cold weather prevents buses from starting.

Parents particularly in the Metropolitan area are asking questions about closing school due to cold weather.

A parent from Plymouth wrote in a letter to the editor that although the temperatures were frigid, most children would not have been endangered by going to school.

“Most of us are resourceful enough to provide our children with the appropriate clothing or transportation to school or to the bus stop,” said the writer.

The winter of 2014 was unique and caused multiple days of lost instruction. Closing school because of the predicted wind chills became an accepted practice. Student safety is the first priority but “cold days” are getting equal billing with “snow days” in closing schools, and that needs to be examined before next winter.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.