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Ever Wonder How They Decide to Close or Delay School in Severe Weather?

A letter from Norwalk Schools Supt. Manuel Rivera is posted on the district website. Whatever your opinion of the decision to close school on Wednesday, Patch got word of the decision at 4:21a.m., residents got earlier notice than most towns.

Weather Decisions: A Letter from Norwalk Schools Superintendent, Dr. Rivera, Posted January 22, 2014 on the District Website

It’s still January, and we’ve had several significant snowfalls and a few school cancellations already this season. Although each storm brings its own set of unique challenges, one main question always drives any weather-related decision:  Will our students and staff traveling to and from school, whether on foot, or by bus or car, be able to get to school and home again safely?

To answer that question, there are many factors that must be taken into account. They include:

  • Expected precipitation (snow or rain or hail)
  •  Amount and intensity of snowfall or rainfall predicted
  • Temperature predictions
  •  Wind conditions and predictions
  •  Road conditions (both main roads and side roads)
  •  Expected conditions of our school parking lots and driveways
  •  Hour by hour expectations for all of the above

I rely on a variety of credible resources to access the information and data regarding these factors:

  • Meteorologist Email Reports: We have a meteorologist on contract who provides email weather alerts the day before and throughout the early morning hours on days when we are on alert.
  • Meteorologist direct phone contact: I confer directly with our meteorologist during the early morning hours and participate on weather related conference calls typically held at 4 a.m. 
  • DPW Reports: Our Deputy Superintendent and I speak directly with the Supervisor for the Department of Public Works (DPW) about road conditions and readiness of our school parking lots and driveways.
  • Direct Observation: When possible, I will personally drive around the City and observe road and school readiness conditions at 4-6 different school locations. I have done that on two occasions this year, between 3:45 a.m. and 5 a.m.
  • Multiple local weather forecasts: We cross reference weather-related data, trends and predictions from other news forecasters (local channels).
  • Area Superintendent Communications: I receive reports from other superintendents that often reference conditions in their districts and actions they are contemplating.
  • Websites: The www.noaa.gov website is the most valuable and offers a wealth of data and precise, hour-by-hour information. In my experience, other websites have proven not to be as accurate.
  • Transportation: We get information from our transportation provider, First Student.

My concern and objective is to make the right decision for Norwalk, with information and data from the best sources that I can find.

The Decision Making Process

The process of making a decision regarding school closing or early dismissal actually begins the day (or days) before, when we become aware of potentially disruptive weather from local meteorologists.

1.       Review of Data and Information: I begin reviewing the data and information during the late afternoon and evening hours the night before the possibility of deteriorating weather conditions. My analysis of the data will inform whether or not I set my alarm clock for a 3:45 a.m. wake-up call.  I also receive a call from my Deputy Superintendent at approximately 4 a.m., whether I set my alarm or not. Typically, our early morning start is confirmed when we know that:

  •  Temperatures will be well below freezing and there is a high probability of precipitation, meaning that snow and/or ice could be major factors. High winds will affect the temperature and so wind chill must also be taken into account 
  • Heavy snowfall is predicted (more than 2-3 inches). This can make for treacherous travel conditions, especially when it is predicted to occur during the early morning commute or between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m 
  •  Timing will also have an impact here. In some cases, bad weather conditions will occur in “off peak” hours, and roads conditions are expected to be clear before the start of the school day when travel begins. At other times, roads are expected to remain clear if a storm is not predicted to arrive until early evening, after our students are home. For example, on January 2, Norwalk was one of only two districts in Fairfield County not to call for an early dismissal day. This was based primarily on the timing of the incoming storm. 

2.       Analyze Information and Potential Scenarios: Starting around 4 a.m., I begin to analyze all the weather-related factors and possible scenarios:

  • I review the latest weather reports from our meteorologist and speak directly with him.
  • I speak with our Deputy Superintendent, who relays reports from our DPW Supervisor.
  • I check the NOAA website and study the charts very carefully, noting the timing and convergence of multiple factors (wind, intensity, temperature, timing, duration of snowfall, etc.).
  • I make additional phone calls if more information is needed, and check emails and communications from my superintendent colleagues.
  • I begin an analysis that considers all of the variables mentioned above, and I create different “what if” scenarios, such as: What if the snowfall is greater than 2-4 inches; what assurance can we get from DPW?  What if the temperature is much colder than the predicted above-freezing temperature -- will the road treatments be sufficient? What if the timing is wrong, and the snowfall and icy conditions arrive during early morning commute or dismissal hours? What if the snow has stopped, roads are clear, but DPW needs more time to clear all of the school parking lots?

3.       Consider Options and Finalize Decision: A decision to close schools must ideally be made by 5 or 5:30 a.m., at the very latest. I will often have multiple conversations during the period between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., and sometimes as late as 5:20. We will consider different options:

  • Delay opening by 1 or 2 hours to allow more time to get to school
  • Close schools
  •  Open Schools on time, but call for early dismissal:

Delaying the opening of schools can create an inconvenience, but if we have sufficient assurance from our Department of Public Works that roads (including side roads) and our school parking lots and driveways will be ready, than that is the preferred choice. If we do not have that assurance, then it may be necessary to close schools. 

I also know that early dismissals can be very problematic for parents who have to make last minute child care arrangements, and so, I try to avoid “early dismissal” decisions when possible. However, if weather conditions are expected to get worse throughout the day, then safety at dismissal time becomes a very real concern… so an early dismissal may be the call, when necessary.

4.       Communicate Decision

If a delay, dismissal or cancellation is called, our staff moves quickly to notify local TV, radio, print and online media outlets; update the Norwalk Public Schools website and new Facebook page; and activate our automated School Messenger system, generating notifications to families who have registered for the service. 

On days when bad weather is on the way, parents are urged to check local media and our online sources for updates, and to plan accordingly. 

I know that school closings, delays and early dismissals are a real challenge for families and staff.  While the weather is out of our control, we are committed to a thorough and careful process behind all weather-related decisions. The safety of our children and staff is always our primary consideration. 

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me:rivera@norwalkps.org.

Sincerely,

Dr. Manuel Rivera

Superintendent

 

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