Vail Daily column: The art, science, and judgment of the snow day
February 2, 2016
For school superintendents across the country, there are few decisions that create more angst and result in more lose-lose options than the call that has to be made for school snow days.
On the surface, the decision seems simple enough. Evaluate the weather and road conditions and make a definitive determination based on that information. In reality, the factors are complex and involve more human judgment than anyone would like.
While different superintendents use different approaches, I'm often asked about our process for determining a snow day. Because the historical rarity of snow days in our community, I thought I'd elaborate on Eagle County's current decision system for making this call.
Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Phil Qualman serves as a point person for school safety for our district and he is centrally involved in the early stages of the snow day decision. Qualman keeps an eye on weather forecasts from a number of different sources regarding when it makes sense for us to activate our inclement weather protocols.
If the forecasts warn of winter storms starting around 5 a.m. on the school day morning, Qualman reviews traffic reports, looking for accident areas that may have already cropped up. Qualman also touches base with our transportation staff, who live in different parts of the county and have a keen understanding of how our school buses will function, depending on the intensity of the snowpack and ice. As we know, weather patterns can be very different downvalley compared to upvalley. We get eyewitness accounts of what's really happening.
At around 5:15 a.m., Qualman calls me with his report and an initial recommendation based on his review and perspective as the former high school principal at Battle Mountain.
At this point, we begin the process of shifting from an empirical process to a judgment call and a lot more factors than the road and weather conditions come into play.
I first consider the safety of the students, staff and community. However, this factor is not absolute — it's always safer to just stay in the house than to venture out, so there is a calculation of the risks and benefits.
Safety is put on the balance against giving up a day of student learning. It's also balanced against the economic interests of the community. Calling a snow day creates thousands of child care issues for working people in our community. It means many people will be forced to call into work, disrupting businesses and other regular community activities.
Eagle County Schools has had a grand total of three snow days since 1982. When I became superintendent, I intentionally worked to break the prideful culture of not calling snow days under any circumstances. The reality was that ego and history were potentially leading us into making questionable decisions in order to perpetuate some kind of meaningless streak.
At the same time, this is a mountain community, it snows, and we know how to navigate winter weather. We put on our boots, get out the door and go to school or work! So while we don't want to ignore data and conditions when it comes to making a snow day decision, we also don't want to cower indoors every time we get a few inches of the snow.
Whenever possible, I try to avoid having to weigh all these variables in the dark hours of the early morning and instead see if we can make the call the night before. I get out and talk with bus drivers and other commuters about what they think and try to evaluate reports from all our communities about what's going on. I also drive several main roads, secondary roads and neighborhood streets myself to evaluate the conditions — and I do it in our Chrysler family van. I want to see how a typical vehicle can get around in the stuff. Making the call the night before gives families more time to plan for the next day in terms of child care coverage and generally reduces the anxiety of the morning decision.
Once the decision to call a snow day is made, our communications team goes into action. The announcement is made in a number of ways including through the Eagle County Alert system, text message, phone recordings, email, social media (Facebook and Twitter) and on the district's website. Local news media is also made aware so they can help get the word out and make sure we don't miss anyone.
There is a lot that goes into the decision for calling a snow day and I can tell you it's never an easy one to make. But through using empirical data, involving numerous perspectives and weighing all the variables, we try and arrive at the best decision possible for our community. I'm glad to have made the call this week and I hope everyone stayed safe and warm and enjoyed their day.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.