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Opinion: District 214 Needs a Little Schooling on Snow Days and Emergency School Closures

Tue February 03 2015 7:50 am
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While most other schools in Chicagoland made a clear decision to close on Sunday night during a severe and dangerous blizzard, District 214’s decision process to close school wavered.

First …
While most other school districts and private schools were already closing their schools during a dangerous blizzard on Sunday, District 214 announced they wouldn’t make a decision until early Monday morning.

We are monitoring the weather conditions and the forecast for tomorrow. Any decision regarding a weather-related delay or cancellation will be made early Monday morning. As of now, school and all activities will be held as scheduled.

Second …
Then at 11:25 p.m. Sunday night, District 214 unexpectedly made a decision and announced the decision that school would start two hours later than normal on Monday, and that students were expected to be at school two hours later than the normal start time.

Due to weather conditions, all District 214 schools will start two hours later than the normal start time on Monday, February 2, 2015.

School buses will pick students up two hours later than the scheduled times, and all students are expected at school two hours later than the normal start time. All before-school activities and practices have been canceled. The school day will end at its normal time.

Third …
The 11:25 p.m. Sunday announcement was maintained until 5:17 a.m. Monday when the school district announced that all schools were canceled for the day. They blamed weather conditions “that did not improve as forecasted.” To make matters more confusing, the WGN Radio website still had a sentence fragment referring to the 2 hour late start, well after the 5:17 a.m. announcment that all schools were closed for the day.

“Due to severe weather conditions that did not improve as forecasted overnight, all schools in District 214 are closed today — Monday, February 2, 2015.

Please check your school’s website, or call the main office after 12 noon, for information regarding after-school activities, athletic events and programs.”

The “did not improve as forecasted overnight” part is actually not a true statement. Yes, the Blizzard Warning did expire at midnight. But blizzards don’t just suddenly stop snowing and blowing. High wind gusts were forecast to gradually taper through the night with gusts ending about 3:00 p.m. Monday — winds that would continue to cause blowing snow that would cover roads and sidewalks into Monday. Snow was also forecast to continue past midnight into Monday morning. People that clear the sidewalks and streets at schools, apartment complexes and public streets still had to catch up with the heavy impact of the blizzard under continued winter storm conditions. And the people who get the school buses ready and drive the school buses still had to get to work.

District 214 Didn’t Do It’s Homework

1. District 214 didn’t really understand the forecast or ignored the National Weather Service. You will see below that District 214 told a little white lie like the student that says their dog ate their homework. Here is the Sunday mid-day forecast for the overnight period from midnight to Monday morning from the National Weather Service (bold emphasis added) …

Snow showers with widespread blowing snow before midnight, then patchy blowing snow and a chance of snow showers after midnight. Low around 7. Wind chill values as low as -3. Blustery, with a northeast wind 15 to 25 mph becoming north northwest after midnight. Winds could gust as high as 35 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 1 to 3 inches possible.

In fact, Arlington Heights had an additional 2 1/2 inches after the 17 inches that fell by kickoff of Super Bowl XVIX. High winds kicked up new drifts overnight. That’s a very accurate forecast.

2. District 214 could not have possibly communicated with authorities or listened to authorities about the severe weather conditions. Or they ignored warnings from authorities. Multiple cars were in ditches Sunday night, and police across Chicagoland were warning people not to travel. Repeat: The police were telling people not to travel. Many roads Sunday night were described as impassable. The blizzard that would mark the fifth heaviest snowfall in Chicagoland to date had clearly revealed its severity by the time of the coin toss of Super Bowl XVIX.

What Are the Implications?
First of all, safety. With high traffic in uncleared roads, there is a much greater risk of personal injury crashes or pedestrians being hit by a vehicle — especially in a congested high school environment. As late as 3:30 p.m. Monday many roadways and sidewalks leading to some schools were still snow-covered. The Thomas Street route to Hersey High School was still snow-packed from Arlington Heights Road all the way to Hersey High School and east of Hersey High School at 3:30 p.m. Monday. The left turn lane from eastbound Thomas Street to westbound Route 12 was impassable by many vehicles — forcing vehicles to make left turns from the straight lane as late as 3:30 p.m. Monday. Sidewalks near school were also not cleared. Remarkably, Hersey’s property was cleared of snow, but the driveway out of Hersey High School to Thomas Street was nearly impassable by some vehicles. We saw one newer model sedan get stuck in snow, which required the driver to back up into the Hersey parking lot, and then get a running start to project her vehicle onto Thomas Street.

Secondly, inconvenience and disruption of optimal use of time. With today’s economy, many families have two parents that work. Initially parents learned that school was being held Monday (although two hours late), so they needed to consider their own way to work, and the safety of their own children’s route to school. Will the buses be on time? Will the buses even make it out? Is it safe for my child to walk? Answers: Probably not, maybe not, definitely not. Any reasonable person would know that District 214 was not facing reality. Remember, the announcement that school would start two hours late was declared Sunday night, after District 214 declared they wouldn’t make an announcement until Monday early morning. This leads to further lack of credibility regarding the public announcements of District 214. A parent that had to leave home for their own job at 5:00 a.m. Monday would have left the house thinking their child had to be at school. At 5:17 a.m. District 214 made the decision they should have made 12 or 24 hours previously.

How About an Action Plan?
1. Consortium. District 214 has previously stated that it doesn’t consider what District 25’s decision is regarding school closings. Perhaps it should. Maybe all public and private schools in the area should consider a consortium to coordinate emergency closing days. Parents with children across multiple schools have an extra challenge to keep it safe when schools are inconsistent regarding school closings. And in today’s society when parents can be arrested for child neglect or for lack of supervision, this is especially harsh.

2. Brush up on weather forecast understanding. Yes, we get some false alarms in Chicago. But here are some hints that the current weather situation is not a false alarm: (a) You observe heavy snow accumulating; (b) the Blizzard Warning start time is bumped up; (c) the radar image covers the whole north half of Illinois, is not shrinking, and is embedded with yellow; (d) you observe high winds with heavy snow; and (e) you observe heavy snow is still accumulating 6 hours after your first observation.

3. Decide on a clear criteria for school closings and disclose the criteria. There are certain conditions that should clearly define that schools should be closed. Blizzard Warning conditions up to midnight the night before school is scheduled to open should be a clear pre-planned condition that school should not open. For example, if the National Weather Service has a Blizzard Warning that expires at midnight, and there is no early expiration of the Blizzard Warning by 6:00 PM, and there is already 12-plus-inches of snow on the ground with high winds and blowing snow; the announcement for school closures should be declared at 6:01 p.m.

Perhaps schools need an algorithm to arrive at a decision. Perhaps better contact with local police shift commanders could help with criteria and assessment. Perhaps certain news reports or traffic condition reports could be indicators or contribute to the scoring for an emergency school closure. Whatever that algorithm would be, parents and students deserve a more clearly defined process to the school closing decision. After all, if the fifth-worst Chicago snowstorm in Chicago history doesn’t meet criteria for emergency school closure the day before the school day — that’s a problem.

4. Use work-at-home technology. Many students have an Apple iPad issued to them for school work. Schools should develop a plan to utilize the iPads during emergency closing days. Consider the time that is wasted checking whether school is closed or not, or the time that is wasted when traffic doubles or triples commute time because of snow-covered roads. It would be smarter for many students to stay home safe and prepare for the February 7th ACT testing, rather than waste time preparing for a miserable snow commute to a shortened and ineffective day in high school. Rather than harshly stating that students are expected to be at school on a late schedule, how about considering having reading or homework assignments planned using textbooks or iPads when the National Weather Service warns of impending severe weather.

And Here We Are Today …
School is open, that’s good. But in another example of incompetence regarding public relations by the school district, the Quicklinks section in the upper right of District 214’s front page refers to a dead page. At 6:30 a.m. Tuesday morning — the day after school was closed because of a blizzard — the Quick Link to “Emergency Closing” on the front page of the District 214 website refers to a page that doesn’t exist. Its says, “Sorry, the page you requested was not found on our server. It is possible that the page has been moved, or you typed the address incorrectly. Please click the link below to go to the home page.” No big announcement that school is open. No welcome back. “No nothing.” There is an announcement that school is open on Twitter, but no announcement on Facebook. While there are email announcements, the inconsistency across all forms of communication is remarkable.

District 214, you need to be more transparent with your decisions on school closings, and you need to be a better public servant. You need to do your homework to prepare accurate emergency school closings like other school districts and private schools in the area. And you need to be more honest, and not blame the weather forecast for your shortcomings. The district owes an apology to parents, students and families for botching this one. There is nothing heroic about staying open when other schools and facilities across Chicagoland are closed. It’s just stupidity.

See also …
District 214 botched use of their social media accounts on January 8, 2015 during a cold snap. The school district posted an explanation why school wasn’t closed when other school districts were closed. They didn’t provide the explanation on their Facebook on Twitter accounts. District 214 only provided links to the explanation on their official website, which was inaccessible because the official website was down for several hours. The school district has since removed the explanation letter from their official website (The Cardinal District 214 Website Down, Elk Grove High School Power Failure, Rolling Meadows Fire Alarm Add Woes to -20°F Wind Chill, Elk Grove Village).

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