Lessons learned on a rare snow day for Eagle County, Lake County schools

Huge storm gives local students a break from the classroom

Snow piled up to the armpits on a Lake County elementary school building. The snow had to be shoveled Monday. Classes are expected to resume Tuesday.
Kate Bartlett | Lake County school district

Even though weather closed schools on Monday in Eagle County and Lake County, we still learned something.

In Eagle County, Monday’s snow day combined art and science. The decision to cancel school falls to the superintendent. These days that’s Phil Qualman, who is serving in an interim role.

“Our transportation team consults with county road crews, we seek road conditions reports from all parts of the county, especially where buses travel, consider weather predictions and active radar, and then the superintendent considers the recommendations from all sources and makes a decision,” Daniel Dougherty, Eagle County Schools chief communications officer, said in an email.

On Sunday afternoon, with snow falling in the Vail Valley at around an inch an hour, school district officials decided people ought not to be motoring about with busloads of kids. Despite the traffic backups you may experience in school drop-off lanes, the majority of Eagle County kids come to school by bus. Those buses start rolling out at 6 a.m. That means the schools would have to be dug out before those buses could deliver their precious cargo.

And so late Sunday afternoon local school officials made the call. That call included robocalls to parents and others.

Support Local Journalism

Officials try to balance safety, giving up a day of student learning and the upheaval it could create, Qualman wrote.

“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,” Qualman wrote.

Lake County digs out

The legend that Lake County has had one snow day in almost 140 years is more tall tale than solid fact.

There have been three or so in the past 30 years, including Monday’s snow day, Lake County school officials said during a break from shoveling the roofs of the elementary school buildings.

Lake County, home to the highest school district in North America, has been holding classes since mining began in the mid-1800s. According to Leadville legend, the first snow day wasn’t until 2012.

That’s a mountain legend — the High Country version of an urban legend, said Kate Bartlett, Lake County Schools’ CFO and on Monday “junior assistant snow shoveler.”

Bartlett was one of 15 or so people shoveling snow off an elementary school roof during Monday morning’s “shoveling party.” She asked some of the more senior snow shovelers and roof revelers about snow days during a quick break from their “shoveling party.”

“They say it’s three in 30 years or so,” Bartlett said after they came to a quick consensus.

While there was not too much snow for Lake County students, there was for some of Lake County’s older school buildings. Lake County closed its schools so the roofs could be cleared, which is how Bartlett and dozens of others came to enjoy Monday’s shoveling party.

“Our procedures state that we clear the roofs particularly at Pitts and West Park (Lake County’s oldest school buildings at more than 50 years old) once the snow reaches a certain depth,” the Lake County school district announcement said.

It’s both necessary and time-consuming and would take most of Monday.

“We’re focused on our elementary schools that are more than 50 years old. We take care of them. They’re elderly,” Bartlett said smiling as she threw more snow from the roof.

And while schools were empty, Lake County’s staff was disinfecting as many buildings and classrooms as possible, fighting a flu outbreak.

“On any given day, we’ve had 100 or more students and many staff members absent across the district,” a Lake County announcement said. “We hope that this will help curb the spread of illness.”

Classes in Lake County are expected to resume on Tuesday.

Snow days in local history

Eagle County Schools last canceled classes for weather on Feb. 2, 2016. Prior to that, the district called snow days on Jan. 30, 2014 and Feb. 8, 2008.

Chronology becomes a bit unclear before that, but you may have to go all the way back to 1982 to find the next previous snow day. Longtime locals recalled that students went to school that day, but it snowed more than a foot between the opening bell and 11 a.m. Students were loaded onto buses and taken home before it became any worse.

Before 1982, Battle Mountain High School — back when it was in Eagle-Vail where Homestake Peak School is now — closed once because of frozen pipes. Some longtime residents seem to recall one other snow day in the 1970s.

Schools closed one day a decade or so ago when an avalanche closed U.S. Highway 24. There was some talk about sending kids from the western end of the valley to school, but better sense prevailed in the end and the district closed school for everyone.

Support Local Journalism