What philosophies or principles guide your decision making?
Inclement weather decisions are based on an assessment of the safety of transporting students to and from school by school bus. When we can transport students safely, we endeavor to open our schools because we are committed to teaching and learning.
Inclement weather decisions for the school division are made on behalf of the nearly 4000 students we serve. We recognize that there are individual circumstances and that parents are entitled to make decisions on behalf of their own children. As with all attendance-related matters, parents electing to make alternate decisions during inclement weather events are asked to notify their child’s school. Also, parents of students who drive are encouraged to direct their children to ride the school bus to have the benefit of a trained driver and a vehicle equipped with multiple safety features when conditions warrant.
What information forms the basis of your decision?
School closing or delay decisions are based on the best available weather forecasts and current information on road conditions. Ultimately the decision is only as good as the information available at the time. Inclement weather is by definition out of the ordinary, making it difficult to predict, thus subjecting decisions to considerable scrutiny.
Where do you get your weather information?
In addition to monitoring the news media and a variety of web-based forecasting resources, we speak directly with representatives of the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, VA. News and other media generally report the forecast for their respective viewing and listening areas. As a school system, we speak directly to the NWS forecasters and secure information specific to Salem that takes into account our small geographic area, elevation, and physical geography.
Where do you get your information regarding road conditions?
The Salem City Schools enjoy many benefits from our excellent relationship with the City Administration. When bad weather is forecast, there is outstanding coordination and communication between city departments and the school system. A terrific Street Department combined with a relatively small geographic area give Salem considerable snow removal capacity.
During inclement weather events, school officials maintain direct radio contact with the Salem Street Department and the Salem Police Department. This communication works two ways. As the street department makes progress with clearing the roads, measures road surface temperatures, etc. they are in contact with school officials to provide information necessary to make informed decisions. As school officials inspect roadways that have a history of being difficult to clear, we radio the street department if/when an area needs to be cleared or requires sand or salt to assist with traction.
Do you look at what nearby divisions are doing?
We maintain contact with many nearby divisions to share forecast and road condition information, but each locality has its own specific size, physical geography, range of elevation, and capacity to clear roads. For these reasons, school closing and delay decisions are made independent of other divisions.
How do you decide whether to close, open late, or dismiss early?
In order to make decisions regarding the timing of opening and closing school, we must consider information on current conditions along with the timing of expected weather. Schools operate at certain times of the day, but inclement weather can begin, end, or change at any time. For example, consider the timing implications of a 2-3 inch snow that arrives at the following four different times of the day:
• An evening snow that concludes during the late night hours provides ample overnight time for snow removal in Salem, but may result in a delayed opening to permit the clearing of sidewalks and entrances at the schools.
• Snow in the early morning hours, which is predicted to end after 10:00 AM would likely close schools because it would not be possible to clear roads and sidewalks in time for school to open.
• Snow forecast to begin in the mid-morning is a situation where it may be necessary to announce a delayed opening. This provides school officials with additional time to gather more information in order to make a decision regarding the opening of school. However, changing an announcement is problematic and is avoided.
• If the same snowfall is predicted to begin after 1:00 PM, a reasonable decision is to open schools on time, monitor the weather, and dismiss early if necessary.
Do you frequently announce a delayed opening when you are still waiting to see if you may need to close?
No, changing an announcement only occurs in rare occasions when the forecast information changes rapidly or the event is at an especially difficult time of day. When there is doubt regarding the opening of school, we generally wait as long as possible in an effort to announce the final decision. Once an announcement is made (for a two-hour delay, for example), people begin to make plans based on the information. Changing the announcement increases the chances for confusion and miscommunication. Our desire to provide one, final announcement is why we often wait until the morning of an inclement weather event to make a decision. In cases when we anticipate that an inclement weather decision may need to be reviewed, we communicate both the expected decision and proactively announce the point in time that it will be reviewed, including how additional communication will be provided if a change is necessary.
What are your considerations when the forecast is for extremely low temperatures and wind chill factors?
Extremely cold temperatures generally present greater challenges for large or rural school divisions, with long bus routes where contingencies must be in place for buses that do not start or may break down in remote areas. Thanks to our relatively small geographic area, use of multiple bus runs that provide more stops in closer proximity for our youngest riders, and the fact that all of our buses are housed at a central garage (complete with plug in heaters to help ensure that diesel engines start even when it is cold), low temperatures are generally overcome by expecting and trusting that parents will bundle their children up and keep an eye out for the bus and that our drivers will keep an eye out for younger children who may be waiting indoors. As with all weather conditions, we monitor the ambient temperature and the status of wind chill watches, advisories, and warnings from the National Weather Service. (The primary threshold for cold weather to become an operational consideration for Salem City Schools is met when the National Weather Service issues a Warning.) We also take into account the time of year, specifically the amount of daylight available to assist our drivers and riders during morning bus runs. Lastly, if any family ever has need for winter coats, hats, or gloves, their student’s School Counselor is their point of contact for assistance.
How do you know that you made the right decision?
You never know until after the inclement weather event. School administrators are in the difficult position of having to make the best possible decision using current conditions and predictions (forecasts). When the forecasts are accurate; the decision is generally deemed to be a good one. When the forecast is inaccurate, the decision will invariably be second guessed. Using multiple sources of information including first-hand observation helps provide the information needed to make an informed decision. When in doubt, we err on the side of student safety.
What plans are in place if there is a sudden change while the students are in school?
This is another example of where our great relationship with the City is essential. Based on experience, the City Garage can equip all of our school buses with tire chains in approximately two hours. During an early/emergency release, schools remain open and staffed until verification has been received from the Transportation Supervisor that all buses serving the school have completed their run and safely transported all students home.
What about employees who live far away or who have children in other school divisions?
School closing and delay decisions are made by the central administration based on our ability to safely transport Salem students to and from Salem Schools. If Salem students can be safely transported to their schools, school employees are expected to be there or arrange for the appropriate leave.
An informational memorandum is sent annually to all staff summarizing Board policy EBCD and Superintendent’s Regulation EBCD-SR to assist employees in determining their work status during school closings and delays. Employees with special, individual circumstances are encouraged to make arrangements with their principal or supervisor.
Are there a certain number of snow days you try to get each year?
No, we develop a school calendar based on the Code of Virginia, on what we believe best supports student learning, and on the needs of our community. Snow days are an interruption and we would prefer to not have any interruptions.