3 things schools think about before canceling classes

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Sledding in Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Minneapolis
Grey O'Loughlin Jansen, Anna Lehn, Jean-Lu and Alia O'Loughlin enjoy the snow day with a sledding trip at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Minneapolis.
Matt Mikus | MPR News 2018

In addition to managing districts with thousands of employees and sometimes tens of thousands of students, superintendents need to pay very close attention to the weather.

Here are three factors schools think about before canceling classes:

1) Transportation and safety

When a school decides to cancel classes in the face of a winter storm, it’s usually because of some sort of transportation consideration. School officials want to make sure they can get kids to school and home again safely.

“The No. 1 priority is the safety of our students and our staff,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

A big district like St. Paul — with 36,000 students, thousands of teachers and hundreds of bus routes — needs to stagger its buses. When winter storms hit, educators need to figure out if their students will be waiting outside for the bus in dangerous temperatures. They're also trying to figure out if their buses are going to make it through snowy streets — will snowplows be able to clear roads well enough for their buses to make their rounds? For districts like that, with such a complex transportation system, a late start or ending classes early is not really an option. They either have classes or they don't.

2) The weather

Temperature is easier to predict than precipitation. Many schools rely on the National Weather Service to inform their decisions about canceling classes. The NWS holds conference calls that superintendents can join, and school officials are often checking in with the NWS multiple times throughout the day so they can get the most accurate predictions on timing and snowfall.

3) State law

Public schools are legally required to provide 165 days of instruction each year for students in grades one through 11. Some districts build in a few extra instruction days to their calendars in anticipation of having to make weather-related closures. But when schools close, it means less instruction time. It can mean parents not being able to go to work. And for some kids, who rely on school for free and reduced meals, no school means possibly going hungry.

In the 2018-19 academic year, there were so many weather-related closures that Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill allowing districts to write off missed days without losing state aid or risking punishment for falling beneath the minimum school calendar.