Freezing weather, snow prompt school closures

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published February 1, 2019

 Cousino High School, in Warren Consolidated Schools, was among the many local schools that closed Jan. 28-31 due to the freezing cold weather Michigan endured.

Cousino High School, in Warren Consolidated Schools, was among the many local schools that closed Jan. 28-31 due to the freezing cold weather Michigan endured.

Photo by Maria Allard

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CENTER LINE/WARREN/STERLING HEIGHTS — Students and staff from local schools “chilled” out last week when school was closed in most districts Jan. 28-31 due to the freezing cold weather Michigan endured.

As temperatures — with the wind chill — dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit and other wintry weather conditions emerged, the districts of Center Line, Fitzgerald, Van Dyke, Warren Woods and Warren Consolidated were closed over a four-day period. Van Dyke also closed Feb. 1. Even classes at Macomb Community College were canceled Jan. 28 and Jan. 30-31, according to its Facebook page.

The Warren Weekly emailed local superintendents about what determines if and when schools should close. They all agree that the primary reason to close is based on the safety of students and district employees.

In Warren Consolidated Schools, officials use weather information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the National Weather Service and local news for forecast information to help determine school closings. After-school activities are often called off on snow days.

According to Fitzgerald Public Schools Superintendent Laurie Fournier, a variety of factors determine calling a snow day, including the amount of snowfall, the timing of a snowstorm, the temperature and wind chill combination, the availability of public transit, and if it’s too cold for students to stand and wait outside for a bus.

Conditions of main roads and side streets and how they may develop over the course of a day also are taken into consideration. School officials, too, must decide if roads are safe enough to transport students by bus, if a bus can safely travel down a snow-fallen residential street with tire ruts, and if a bus safely can turn a corner on snowy/icy streets. WCS Superintendent Robert Livernois said buses in the district make more than 4,000 bus stops picking up children every morning.

“Given the district transports thousands of students to and from school each day, along with field trips and after-school activities, busing is always a major factor,” he said. “In fact, if our buses cannot safely travel throughout the district in a timely manner, schools may close.”

Local superintendents discuss weather conditions with each other before a final determination to close is decided.

“The Macomb County superintendents typically schedule a conference call at 4:30 a.m. to make a decision on whether school should be open or closed,” Fournier said. “Sometimes we are able to conference call at night to make a decision for the following day. Much of our decision is based on the timing of a storm or to watch for changes in a weather forecast. If not the night before, decisions to close schools are made by 5 a.m.”

“Many county districts and the Macomb Intermediate School District share many programs and services to save money, so the need to coordinate closure is especially important,” Livernois said.    

Superintendents also rely on school personnel to help with the decision to keep districts open or not.

“It’s helpful to hear about road conditions in all areas, as we have buses and staff driving all over. Our director of operations drives the district and checks the side streets during the night as well, and we are on the phone several times overnight on days when the weather is challenging.  All of this is helpful,” Van Dyke Public Schools Superintendent Piper Bognar said. “Ultimately, we are concerned about the safety of students and staff. If roads are slick and temps, including wind chill, are dangerously low, we have to take that into consideration.”

“We also rely on key staff who travel around the district, typically several hours before the start of school, to assess road conditions,” according to Livernois.

Potential snow days are usually factored into the school calendar every year and may or may not have to be made up at the end of the school year.

“The state allows school districts to miss six days of school for a variety of reasons, including snow, ice, cold and, for example, even a water main break in a school,” Livernois said. “If all six are used, districts can request an additional three days if circumstances warrant.”

“Staff who are scheduled to work do get paid, unless we have to make up days. Those days have to be worked regardless,” Bognar said. “The state takes some emergency days into consideration, as does our calendar, but there are days that have to be made up after a certain number.”

While students are off, as are many staff members, there are some employees who work on snow days. Warren Woods Public Schools Superintendent Stacey Denewith-Fici acknowledged the work of the district’s  maintenance and custodial staff in a letter to families distributed Jan. 29.    

“These dedicated men and women work in subzero temperatures day and often through the night to make sure that our lots and sidewalks are clear and safe for students and staff,” she said.

School officials realize that snow days can be challenging for families where parents work outside the home.

“We know that in addition to the lost learning, canceling school burdens many families and staff in the form of lost wages and lost time,” Denewith-Fici stated in the letter. “Furthermore, it dramatically impacts our students’ ability to partake in our breakfast and lunch programs. As always, we will continue to make the best decision for the majority of our community.”

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