Washington School District officials say many factors come into play when deciding whether to cancel school due to inclement weather.
The district was closed again Wednesday due to icy road conditions from an overnight storm that blew into the area. That marks the seventh day — so far — to be made up this school year.
Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said on the surface it may seem the decision to cancel school is easy to make, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The many considerations include road conditions, both main roads and secondary roads; bus stop safety; possible bus delays; bus turnaround issues; the likelihood of bus accidents or breakdowns; temperatures, both for the buses to start and remain running, as well as for students standing at the stops; and forecast and timing of precipitation; attendance for accountability and state reporting purposes; and the condition of the 11 school parking lots, both at the time of arrival and dismissal.
“It’s an exhaustive list of considerations,” said VanLeer, who also consults with the district’s bus provider, First Student, the buildings and grounds staff, area superintendents, state, county and city road departments (when applicable), the National Weather Service and the local weather outlook.
When poor weather moves in during the evening, officials and personnel will drive to the attendance areas to check out the biggest trouble spots typically between 6-9 p.m.
The road conditions at 9 p.m. are usually the same as the road conditions at 5 a.m., VanLeer said, when the buses are preparing to roll out.
School officials also seek out the comfort level of the bus drivers through Marty Marks, First Student manager.
“We drive roads in the morning as well, however, if the decision can be made in the evening, families can make arrangements more easily,” VanLeer said. “In addition to main roads, we analyze secondary roads, subdivisions and turnaround locations as well.”
Morning monitoring and road checks typically begin at 3:30 a.m., she said, as a decision must be made, preferably by 5 a.m.
VanLeer noted that First Student begins executing the morning elementary routes as early as 5:45 a.m.
VanLeer said officials are often asked why snow routes aren’t more commonplace in the Washington School District.
The one-word answer, she said, is safety.
Washington is the largest district in the county — both in enrollment and square miles. The district encompasses 275 square miles and takes in parts of three counties — Franklin, Warren and St. Charles.
And many roads within the district boundaries have no shoulder or guardrails, VanLeer noted.
Snow routes would mean that students would be standing at snow route bus stops on roadways like Highways 94, KK, T, A, BB and YY, among others.
“We just don’t feel this is a good or safe option,” said VanLeer, adding that nearly half of the district’s students ride on school buses.
Many students also stand at bus stops without their parents who have to leave for work before the school bus arrives.
Late Start Schedule
VanLeer said the district also is asked frequently why it doesn’t consider a late start schedule.
“There are several reasons and the first is road conditions do not typically improve in rural areas a great deal between 5-8 a.m.,” she explained, “and it becomes extremely difficult to predict if they actually will by the time the buses begin executing the routes.”
The district runs a two-tiered bus routing system, therefore the late start times would vary because elementary and secondary schools start at different times.
“We also have a few combined routes to consider,” VanLeer said. “We have found this to be extremely confusing to parents and not a favorable option.”
Currently, the district’s academic calendar is designed to accommodate for 6 to 8 makeup days per year.
“In most cases, this is an adequate amount of make-up days,” VanLeer said. “In rare instances, the inclement weather forgiveness rule (state law) prevails.”
The district has a calendar committee, made up of school staff and administrators, which develops the calendar that spells out how inclement weather days will be made up.
Modifications can be made to the calendar when circumstances call for it, VanLeer said, but the district must be in compliance with state requirements for days/hours of attendance at all levels of instruction.
The state definition of inclement weather includes snow, ice, extremely cold temperature, flooding and tornadoes. It does not include excessive heat or illness.
The law reads that every school day missed must be made up until the seventh day. At that point, one day must be made up for every two days missed until 13 days are missed.
After the 13th day, no more days are required to be made up.
VanLeer said new regulations will go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year and will be reflected in the upcoming school year academic calendar set to be approved by the school board next week.