MOUNT VERNON – This winter has been one for the books. Between historic cold snaps and persistent snowfall, the weather has become the center of attention – and snow days have become commonplace.
It’s placed a significant burden on local superintendents, who are charged with making those snow day decisions – to stay on, to delay, or to call it off altogether. Superintendents rise between the hours of 4 and 5 a.m. on potential snow days to drive across their district – sometimes they’re the first ones to hit the road – and gauge how future weather conditions may impact the safety of their students and staff.
It’s a quick and impactful decision, and given this winter’s frequently inclement weather, it’s one local superintendents are making nearly every day.
On Feb. 1, Knox Pages reporter Grant Pepper rode along with Mount Vernon superintendent Bill Seder to get a behind-the-scenes look at the process. At that point, Mount Vernon had already used five snow days and had cancelled school two days in a row due to sub-zero temperatures.
It was a little warmer that morning – 7 degrees – but starting around midnight, heavy snowfall had struck central Ohio. By the time Seder began his drive at 4:30 a.m., there were already three inches on the ground.
Seder had one hour to make his decision – to remain open or close for a third straight day.
Calamity days piling up
As of Monday, every Knox County school district has either surpassed – or is close to surpassing – their calamity day limit for the 2018-19 school year.
Danville and East Knox have both used nine snow days. Both districts allocate eight days each year for cancellations. Because East Knox and Danville have already exceeded that number, both districts used Monday (President’s Day) as a make-up day. For both districts, every snow day from here on out will be made up over spring break or at the end of the school year.
Jason Snively, Danville Local Schools superintendent, believes the hilly terrain of eastern Knox County often leads to quicker closures from its two districts. He also said the eastern part of the county is often “left out in the dark” when it comes to timely road treatment, an issue he’s recently taken up with county officials.
“Just the topography that we have, the proximity that we are to the county garage – you know, we’re a lot farther behind in the mornings with our roads in the county,” Snively said.
Fredericktown and the Knox County Career Center have both used seven snow days. Fredericktown had its students come in on President’s Day as well, even though the district has an eight-day limit, per district make-up policy.
If the district exceeds its eight-day allotment, Fredericktown will begin making decisions on how to make that time up. During the 2013-14 polar vortex, the last time the district went over, the district decided to add 15 minutes to the beginning and end of each school day over a marked period of time. That allowed the district to make up instructional time without adding days onto spring break or the end of the year.
“A lot of families make spring break plans and we don’t want to mess people up that way,” Fredericktown superintendent Matt Chrispin said. “The end of the year seems kind of pointless because we’re just showing up to show up. So we would probably just tack on time for six or seven days.”
The Career Center utilizes ‘blizzard bags’ on snow days 6-8, where students are tasked with completing classwork at home during their days off. After the eighth day, the district will make up time at the end of the year.
Career Center superintendent Kathrine Greenich said her district determines snow days using a different method than the rest of the county districts. She will keep in contact with the other five county superintendents on the mornings of potential snow days, as Seder mentioned in the video, and will base her decision off of their closures.
The Career Center takes students from all five Knox County school districts and Clear Fork. Greenich knows the percentage of students in her district from each area. If less than 50 percent of those students would be able to make it to school that day, based off of area closures, she will cancel school.
This means the Career Center will typically close if four county schools close, or if Mount Vernon and one other county school closes, Greenich said.
Mount Vernon and Centerburg have both used six snow days this year. Both schools had President’s Day off. Mount Vernon utilizes ‘blizzard bags’ on snow days 6-8, while Centerburg does not.
Both Mount Vernon and Centerburg have the flattest terrains in the county, although Mount Vernon’s district spans 149 miles, reaching varying levels of topography. If either Centerburg or Mount Vernon exceed their eight-day limits, both districts will make up that time at the end of the year.
Centerburg superintendent Mike Hebenthal said his district not only benefits from a flatter terrain than some surrounding schools, but also from the fact that his district starts school at 8:15 a.m. – at least 30 minutes later than everybody else. That gives the county more time to clear the roads before the start of the school day.
All calamity day procedures are defined and revisited regularly by the county’s respective school boards. The state requires a certain number of instructional hours for all schools – 1,001 for grades 7-12, 910 for K-6 – and all county school districts plan to exceed that requirement handily each year. East Knox, for example, plans 1,150 instructional hours for grades 7-12 and 1,062 hours for grades K-6.
Districts will typically plan conservatively because all delays and closures count against that hour total, East Knox superintendent Steve Larcomb said.
Larcomb added that, while all county superintendents communicate on potential snow days, they do not base their decisions off the idea that another district may use fewer snow days than theirs.
“I guess the truth of the matter is, I don’t worry about what everyone else is doing,” Larcomb said. “But I think we’re typically all relatively close to each other.”
Local superintendents agreed that the reaction to snow day decisions is typically mixed; there will be those who support the decision and those who don’t, and that will likely never change.
“No matter what you do, you’re going to have phone calls either way,” Hebenthal said.
But superintendents also agreed that the focus is always on the safety of the children. That, Snively said, will also never change.
“My rule of thumb is, if I’m in doubt, I’m not taking any chances. I’d rather go to school in the spring or summer than take a risk,” Snively said. “But at the same time, we value education. So if we can get the bulk of kids here safely, we’re going to have school one way or another.”