School closings a team effort
January 07, 2014 10:55 AM
by JULIE MARTIN
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While this week’s severe cold snap may make it seem like delaying or closing school is an easy decision, school officials around Indiana County say making that call is a team effort that starts in the wee hours of the morning using information from a variety of sources.

It’s a process that often takes into account information from local road crews, weather data and sometimes even first-hand experience behind the wheel and out in the elements.

“I think people usually think the superintendent makes the decision unilaterally, but that’s not the case,” said Tammy Whitfield, superintendent in the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District.

Whitfield said the decision-making process begins with checking the weather reports on television around 4:30 a.m. About half an hour later, she’s ready to contact Blairsville-based Smith Bus Company, which provides busing for the district.

The company, she said, stays in touch with municipal officials and road crews.

Those who are on the ground, so to speak, are able to give the bus company an idea of what is happening on local roads.

A contact at Smith then passes those observations on to Whitfield, helping her to understand if the roads are passable for buses and what conditions are like, she said.

Randy Smith, owner of Smith Bus Company, said that, when dealing with questionable weather, the transportation company’s role is to give school districts as much information as they can.

In addition to Blairsville-Saltsburg, the company serves several other area districts, including Marion Center, Homer-Center and Derry.

Keeping the lines of communication open means Smith gives school officials maps and schedules for bus routes and even hand-held radios for those who are in areas with spotty cellular phone service.

On a day of heavy snow or extreme cold, the bus company’s staff starts contacting municipal road crews in areas the buses service. The information is then relayed to district transportation directors and superintendents.

“We have a designated driver supervisor for each area,” Smith said. “They start at about 4 a.m. They know where the trouble spots are at.”

Meanwhile, back on the school side, Whitfield also gathers online weather data and will even take an early-morning drive through the area to see for herself what roads are like. That doesn’t mean that a spin around the block can shed light on road conditions in an entire school district.

In a district where the campuses are nearly 20 miles apart, as those in Blairsville-Saltsburg are, conditions can vary widely from one end of the district to another, Whitfield said.

That can lead to decisions that err on the side of caution.

That was the case on Monday, according to Whitfield. Blairsville, she said, was “passable” while Saltsburg was not. The district had a two-hour delay.

And it’s not just safe driving conditions that influence the decision to delay or cancel school. School officials also have to consider the safety of students who are waiting for the bus.

“There’s always concern, even on a warm day,” Whitefield said. “But especially when it’s so cold, we wouldn’t want frostbite or hypothermia to set in.”

Thomas “T.J.” Kakabar, superintendent in the Penns Manor Area School District, said he tries to play it safe, too, when making the call on delays and cancellations.

He too consults with the bus company, in his district’s case Northern Cambria-based Tri-County Transportation.

Since buses head out to pick up high school students as early as 6 a.m., the district has to decide whether there will be a delay or a cancellation by 5:30 a.m., according to Kakabar.

“It’s not really a difficult process, but it’s more timing than anything else,” he said.

Though it’s not always possible, Kakabar added, he tries to make a decision the night before so parents can make other arrangements for their children, if need be.

With the National Weather Service calling for a high of minus 3 today and wind chills as lows as 35 below zero, Penns Manor Area — and five other districts that serve Indiana students — had canceled today’s classes by Monday afternoon.

By Monday night, all area schools had made the decision to close.

“You can’t take the chance of kids not having their skin protected, when you’re talking frostbite in less than five minutes,” Kakabar said. “It’s extremely dangerous.”

Preferring to be safe rather than sorry led to a two-hour delay Monday in the Homer-Center School District on Monday. Homer-Center canceled today’s classes on Monday afternoon.

“We will err on the side of caution,” said Homer-Center Superintendent Charles Koren. “(Monday) morning, for example, it was warm and then that flash change of temperature occurred with snow and we did not think we would have the roads treated in time for the normal time because that came in west to east so quickly.”

What tipped him off, Koren said, was seeing the decisions of the Armstrong and Apollo-Ridge school districts, to the west.

In addition to checking with township officials, who have a radar set up, talking to contacts at the bus company and watching all of the local news channels for weather updates, Koren said that at times he also reaches out to those in neighboring school districts.

“Throughout the day, there will be times when I touch base with other superintendents to see what they are thinking,” he said.

Apollo-Ridge Superintendent Matt Curci said he has “multiple” conversations with his transportation director, Gary Davis, who connects with local roads crews as well as bus companies.

As with all schools, once a decision is made, officials work to get the information out in a variety of ways, by posting delays and closings on the web, by contacting radio and television stations and through automated systems that alert staff and parents.

From Curci’s point of view, students and families are as important as anyone else involved in the process of deciding whether classes are a go.

“I’m thankful for all the folks that go into the process to make the final decision,” he said. “We’re always thankful for the cooperation of our families, too.”

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