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When temps plummet, how do school districts decide when to close?

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School's out in New Ulm
Students head for the buses at Jefferson Elementary School after classes were canceled because of snowy conditions last year.
Steve Muscatello/The Journal of New Ulm via AP/File

When school officials across Minnesota learned that temperatures would struggle to reach zero today, many of them decided to close schools due to the frigid weather. Others decided to delay school by two hours.

How district officials make the often-difficult decision depends on a number of factors. Sometimes it has to do with diesel. At other times it's about gloves.

The bottom line, Minnesota school administrators say, is safety: evaluating the risk of frostbite to students who stand at the bus stop or walk to school.

"Once it gets to a certain wind chill and air temperature chill, the children are in physical danger," said Julie Schultz Brown, director of communications for St. Paul Public Schools, which canceled school Thursday. "It's just too dangerous to put it to chance for a young child."

The call was a different one for superintendent Sherri Broderius in the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district about 90 miles west of the Twin Cities.

With a wind chill of minus 30, Broderius started school two hours late, so buses could run in the daylight. That came after she canceled classes the day before because of blizzard conditions.

She's confident she made the right decision both days, but knows there will be parents who disagree.

"I think it's easy for people and say 'It's only 30 below,'" she said. "Or some people sit back and say, 'It's only 30 below, it's Minnesota; we've got to do our business.'"

Broderius considers several factors from air temperature and wind chill to road conditions and visibility before making a decision to close or delay school. 

But largely, she has students in mind. 

"I think about the five-year old standing at the end of the driveway because mom or dad had to get to work," Broderius said. "I think about the 16-year old that's driving an old car with bald tires."

There's no defining temperature level, rule, formula, or clear answer on when it's appropriate to call off school for the day, school officials say.

When evaluating the risk of frostbite, they consider the following:

• How many minutes of exposed skin outside will it take for a chance of frostbite? St. Paul Public Schools officials use this chart in deciding: 

Windchill chart
Courtesy NOAA

• Do a large number of students rely on bus transportation and wait at the bus stop, or walk to school?

• Can the district rely on buses, which run on diesel fuel, to start on time so that children are not waiting longer at the bus stop? Are the buses old and worn, or newer and more reliable?

• Do students have enough warm clothes, hats, scarves, gloves, heavy jackets, and can cover exposed skin to prevent frostbite?

• Are there icy roads or other snowy conditions that will add to the potential that children in extreme cold could be waiting longer?

School district officials also must consider other factors, among them student nutrition and how school cancellations will affect families. Some parents may have to miss work because their children are home, and students who depend on eating breakfast and lunch at school may not have food at home.


But when classes are canceled, that gives teachers less time to prepare students for state testing.

Also, if schools cancel too many hours, they may have to hold make-up days later in the school year. Because there have already been several days with schools closed this winter, many districts are close to the limits of missed days or hours before they have to start making up days.

The Minnesota Department of Education is weighing how the time off from school will affect students when they take standardized tests this spring.

"Lost time for instruction means that kids aren't mastering standards, and then when you carry that forward, that means when kids are tested on some of the curriculum materials, they may not perform as well depending on how many days out of school they've experienced," said Charlene Briner, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Education Office of the Commissioner. 

School district officials already are concerned about Monday and Tuesday of next week, when the forecasted temperatures will be similar to those of days when school was canceled.

"We're going to be working with the education commissioner to look at what's going to happen next week and try to get some consensus among a variety of metro school districts going forward if we're going to face this," Brown said. "Because in February, March we can get large snowfalls. So, it is concerning. Very concerning."

Mark Bollinger, deputy chief operations officer for Minneapolis Public Schools, said he talks to a variety of departments to evaluate the effect of canceling school or remaining open: maintenance, transportation, emergency management, safety security, nutrition, athletics, academics, and facilities. After weighing the risks, he makes a recommendation to the district's chief operations officer. He also consults with other school districts and the city.

All that aside, "the first thing we worry about in the district is the students' health and safety," he said, adding that over the years, the health risk of cold weather may have changed for students.

"It might be in the demographics," Bollinger said. "We have a continuing concern that, are they dressed properly, do they have access to coats, gloves, hats? And if we think we're getting feedback that that may not be as available as we thought it used to be, we do take that into consideration."


Sometimes, districts will use past school cancellations as a compass. 

On Wednesday, St. Paul decided at about 4:30 p.m. to remain open Thursday. But later in the evening, the weather forecasts changed to say it would be colder than it was Jan. 6 when Gov. Mark Dayton closed Minnesota's schools, said Toya Stewart Downey, marketing and media relations coordinator for St. Paul Public Schools.

"And that's when we made the decision to close," she said. "We don't have a magic number. We don't say if it's 20 below wind chill and five below temperature, we're going to cancel school."

The decisions are largely left up to local school districts and their leaders. Not all districts are the same, Bollinger said. Some districts have a high number of students who take buses. Some rural areas have a lot of students who walk to school. In other areas, there will be a higher hardship on families if school is canceled, he said.

Bollinger said the decision is always a difficult one. He evaluates three perspectives in decision-making: situations, risks and opportunities.

"Do we make mistakes? We do," Bollinger said. "We strive very hard not to. But in our efforts to give proper notice to parents, sometimes we take the best information we have at the time and make a decision. And I would hope to tell you that 98 percent of the time, 99 percent of the time, it's a good decision."