Snow days are serious business | TheUnion.com

Snow days are serious business

Lorraine Jewett
Special to The Union

It's a classic case of "Plan for the worst but hope for the best."

That's how local school district officials approach the often-controversial decision whether to cancel classes and call a snow day — a process that has been streamlined over the past two years.

The new method is the innovation of Nevada County Office of Emergency Services Manager John Gulserian and Durham School Services bus transportation General Manager Paul Bracco.

Rather than officials from 15 local school districts randomly calling, emailing, and texting each other, Gulserian and Bracco establish a 5:30 a.m. conference call.

Early risers

"I'm a weather freak," said Gulserian. "I monitor the weather. We look at the percentages and predicted accumulations. I email everything I'm getting from the National Weather Service and the hourly forecast. It's a challenge because we're at the snowline, but we all work together."

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"We used to make multiple phone calls in the morning and have one of my supervisors drive to the highest peaks of the local area to determine if school buses could run in those higher elevations," said Bracco. "It wasn't the best way to make an assessment. Today, we partner with OES and get a more current status of the weather pattern, which allows us to make better decisions."

"I wake every hour to check the KCRA-TV Doppler because the high school district has historically been first to make the call on a snow day," said Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Louise Johnson. "I don't want teenage drivers driving in hazardous conditions. Plus, this time of year, our tenth-graders are getting their licenses and are inexperienced drivers."

Johnson has suffered personal tragedy and heartbreak related to dangerous weather conditions.

"On January 30, 2002, I kissed my husband goodbye but he never came home from work," said Johnson, who was then assistant superintendent of a school district near Visalia. "He died after a black ice accident. I don't ever want another family to live through the pain my family did.

"That's the level to which I seriously take the snow call. I make the very best decision I can given the information I have at 5:30 a.m. I will always err on the side of student safety."

Even the laborious task of installing snow chains on school bus tires can't ensure safety.

"Chains don't help with ice," said Johnson. "The most dangerous conditions are when it snows, melts, and then freezes overnight."

While students are almost uniformly overjoyed when a snow day is called, some parents are upset because they have to make arrangements for child care.

"No matter what call I make, all day long my staff will be abused because someone disagrees with my decision," said Johnson. "I've been yelled at, sworn at, and my staff probably takes worse. I'm amazed at what some people think is all right to say to another human being."

District officials include make-up days in their school calendars. The high school district, the area's largest school district, plans for two snow days. If school isn't cancelled because of snow, there is no school on those make-up days. If one or two school days are cancelled, students must attend classes on one or both of the make-up days.

Making up for lost time

Snow days have sometimes been misnomers. Two years ago, the district cancelled classes due to flooding, mud slides, and slippery roads. Last fall, October's wildfires forced the cancellation of two school days.

"It was hard to get information because nobody had it," said Johnson. "Some of the major roads were impassable. The winds were blowing and there was danger of the fires spreading quickly."

Because of those fires, students attended classes during the two make-up days on the district's calendar. A third school day was cancelled due to heavy snow February 26. That day of cancelled classes could cost the district $135,000, funding the district may not receive in Average Daily Attendance from the state.

"We will apply for a waiver from the state requesting funding for that day," said Johnson. "The state may grant the waiver because of unforeseen circumstances."

Beyond potential red ink, there is an academic price to pay.

"There is always a cost when a student misses instruction," said Johnson. "Our teachers know they have to be flexible. There are even times when a snow day occurs on a final exam day, and you have to cope with that."

Once a snow day is called, Johnson uses the telephone system linked to the student database to notify families. Next, she personally telephones the news media. The district is exploring ways to make media notification easier, perhaps with a single, recorded message.

Another recent improvement is the protocol when it starts snowing after classes are in session.

"We had an incident a few years ago and all the districts released at once," said Johnson. "There were accidents and slide-outs all over the town. That day, the snow let up by the time dismissal came. We should have kept the students in school."

"It caused mass traffic jams," said Gulserian. "Now we release districts in a staggered fashion."

Another instance in which students may be better off in school is on days cloaked in smoke.

"We were inundated with smoke due to the Foresthill fire a few years ago, but we had a development day just for staff so I didn't close schools," said Johnson. "Placer County closed due to smoke, and they had kids running around outside in smoke rather than in air-conditioned classrooms. That's a time kids are safer at school."

Whether or not Mother Nature has more snow in store, officials involved in snow day decisions are ready.

"The key is the safety of students who ride our buses, the safety of students licensed to drive to school, and the safety of our bus drivers," said Bracco. "We also consider the general public, and whether it is safe for us to impact the roads with buses."

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.