As the number of snow days mount, Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said she’s ready for spring.
“To say it’s been a frustrating winter is an understatement,” VanLeer told The Missourian. “The decision to close school rarely comes easy and I know full well that I will never make everyone happy.
“But, I rest in knowing that I am making a decision that I believe to be in the best interest of our students and staff,” she said. “That is all I can do.”
The district was closed again Wednesday and Thursday, which puts the total number of snow days at 11 for the school year.
Thanks to a change in state law requiring a certain number of minutes/hours, rather than days, many schools districts like Washington revised their calendars this year adding more time to the day so making up snow days would be a thing of the past.
The Washington School District added those 60 instructional hours to the calendar to alleviate inclement weather make-up days. It did this by eliminating early out Wednesdays, adjusting some start and end times, and making other calendar tweaks.
However, district staff does have to make up contract time after six days are missed due to inclement weather.
VanLeer said that time is being made up in a variety of ways. On some snow days, if they feel they can safely make the commute, usually a little later in the day, many teachers catch up in their classrooms.
Staff also can attend professional development, log hours due to extra evening commitments, do curriculum writing, instructional planning or a variety of different things.
“In a normal year, we wouldn’t have a second thought to this and probably wouldn’t miss more than six days, but this isn’t a normal year,” VanLeer said. “We appreciate everyone’s patience.”
The district has provided a detailed explanation on its website about all of the factors considered when calling school off due to weather.
One question frequently asked is why the district doesn’t use snow routes. The answer is safety.
Because of its unique size — the district covers 257 square miles and crosses into three counties — there are many rural roads that have no shoulder or guardrails.
Snow routes would mean that a large number of students (nearly half of the enrollment rides the bus) would be standing at snow route bus stops on roadways like Highways 94, KK, T, A, BB, YY and others.
“We just don’t feel this is a good option,” VanLeer said.
And not all students are waiting for their bus within the comforts of a car with a parent. Many children see themselves off to school as the parent leaves for work before they get on the school bus, officials point out.
Other considerations include the more obvious ones such as road conditions of both the main roads and secondary roads; bus stop safety; buses running on time; and bus turnarounds in the likelihood of accidents or breakdowns.
Temperatures also factor into the decision, not only for those students waiting to be picked up, but also whether the buses will start and the possibility of mechanical failures.
Forecast and timing of the precipitation are other considerations, along with the condition of parking lots at the schools both for arrival and dismissal.
VanLeer said the decision to call off school is not one she makes alone. She consults with First Student, the district’s bus company, the buildings and grounds staff, area superintendents, various road departments.
Officials also are tuned into the National Weather Service and local weather outlets trying to get the latest forecasts, which are often changing.
When poor weather moves in during the evening, teams assembled by First Student and the district, drive the attendance areas to check out the biggest trouble spots, typically between 6 and 9 p.m.
The road conditions at 9 p.m. are rarely different than the road conditions at 5 a.m. the next day when the buses are preparing to roll out, officials said.
VanLeer also gauges the comfort level of the bus drivers through Marty Marks, First Student manager.
Personnel do drive roads in the morning as well, however, VanLeer said if the decision can be made in the evening it’s best so families can make arrangements more easily.
In addition to main roads, secondary roads, subdivisions and turn-around locations are analyzed as well.
Morning monitoring and road checks typically begin at 3:30 a.m. as a decision must be made, preferably by 5 a.m. First Student begins executing the morning elementary routes as early as 5:45 a.m. as they are in route to their first pick-up location.
Late Start Schedule
Another question often asked is why the district doesn’t have a late start schedule.
VanLeer said road conditions generally do not improve in rural areas a great deal between 5 and 8 a.m., and it becomes extremely difficult to predict if they actually will be better 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. There also are a few combined routes to consider.
“We have found this to be extremely confusing to parents and not a favorable option,” VanLeer said. “We have also found that student attendance numbers are significantly down on days with a late start schedule.”