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Forecasting

For many school administrators, the decision to delay or close schools due to wet, snowy or frigid weather is one of the most important and difficult they have to make. In the majority of situations, this judgment is based on transportation issues. 

Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, it can snow as late as April. This is what happened a few years back. It snowed like crazy one Friday morning. Imagine something called, “Thundersnow,” and you’ll get an idea of the insanity that dumped from the sky.

As snow blanketed local roads in mere minutes, the call was made to close the local Asheville schools. School buses and parents of “car riders” had already hit the roads, skidding all the way. An hour later, four inches of snow had fallen and traffic ground to a halt. I was one of those parents stuck in the morass. 

As a meteorologist, I knew it was a fast-moving storm and wouldn’t last long. I also knew that the warm ground would quickly melt the snow once it stopped falling. Alas, by 1 p.m., the streets were clear. If schools had stayed open, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Of course, no one asked for my opinion. 

Still, weather planning is at the top of student transporters’ minds, especially at this time of year. 

Charlie Glazener, executive director of community relations and communications for the Asheville City Schools, supported this belief. “Always err on the side of safety,” said Glazener.

“Safety is always our foremost concern, not only for our students, but staff as well,” added Cathy Benson, director of transportation for the Clarke County School District in Athens, Georgia, on the decision to cancel classes due to the elements. “Safety in a winter weather decision must take into consideration getting students and staff to/from school and work locations in safe driving conditions.” 

Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools, said safety should never be compromised.

Winter precipitation is the greatest road hazard that student transporters are commonly faced with, even more so than distracted drivers, potholes and whatever else you can imagine. Snow, sleet and freezing rain can make roads dangerous or even impassible, which many school bus drivers have undoubtedly discovered at one time or another. As little as a quarter-inch of snow or sleet on a road, and even less ice, can negatively affect tire traction and the driver’s ability to control the bus. Meanwhile, at a rate of of four inches per hour, which is not unheard of especially with recent storms, road conditions can be compromised in a matter of minutes. And with that, let’s look at how weather affects the route to and from school.

Road Conditions & School Decisions

Snow can occur when surface temperatures are above freezing. The snow is formed, as we all know, in the clouds where the temperature is much colder than on the ground. Still, snow can accumulate quickly, even if the ground is relatively warm. If it’s snowing hard enough, the snow accumulates faster than it melts.

Freezing rain, meanwhile, is water that turns to ice when it makes contact with the earth’s surface. This leads to the very worst conditions for drivers as streets can become invisible sheets of black ice almost instantly. Falling trees due to heavy ice loads or winds exacerbate the problem.

Visibility on the roads is another factor to be considered. For many locations, deteriorating surface road conditions due to falling snow is of more troubling than the reduction in visibility it creates. But in more northern areas where snow-covered roads are anticipated, poor visibility may be the factor that causes the most problems. If strong winds are an issue, blowing snow may be the culprit even if no precipitation is currently present. Under the worst of conditions, visibility can drop to zero when heavy snow is falling or blowing around, making driving impossible.

Although road conditions are typically the biggest issue transporters must deal with, there are still other concerns. Parking lots at school sites, as well as bus yards, must remain open and accessible. Maintenance crews must also tackle school and neighborhood sidewalks. Of course, power outages further complicate matters for schools. 

Cold temperatures alone are a deciding factor in only a minority of decisions to cancel school, but as we have seen in recent years, this element can also be critical. Extreme cold can mechanically impair or even disable a fleet of buses. Of even greater concern is the health of the students who must wait at bus stops and walk some distance to and from home. For people, we must now consider not just the actual temperature but also the Wind Chill Factor. When the wind blows, the moving air can rob heat from your body much faster than when it’s calm. 

Once again, we find that when extreme winter weather is common, schools often just deal with it. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District in Alaska emphatically states on its website that, “The school district will not close schools simply because of cold weather.” However, it adds that, “Parents may, at their discretion, keep their child home during cold weather.” As you head south, calling off school due to cold temperatures is occasionally implemented. The further south you go, the lower the threshold for cold temperatures. In International Falls, Minnesota, very cold in winters are the norm, and temperatures might need to fall to 40-below or lower to result in school closing. Meanwhile, temperatures or wind chills at or below “only” negative 15 degrees will close schools in Asheville, North Carolina, according to Glazener.

Making the Call

All these factors and more contribute to how schools and communities decide on  whether or not to hold class, and if the school buses hit the roads. Typically, the superintendent of schools makes the final decision. If there is a director of transportation, he or she will normally gather all of the pertinent information and make a recommendation to school administration. Either way, there is usually a team involved in the decision-making process. All will say you need a definite plan in place before going into the winter. Delays, rather than closings, are used when conditions are expected to significantly improve a few hours after normal opening time. According to Watkins, another factor that has become increasingly important is “public tolerance.” 

“Over the last 10 years,” said Watkins, “the public has become less tolerant of any snowfall.” 

He stated that public pressure has made him even more cautious when determining when to call off school. 

If precipitation has already fallen or is falling, at least there is a tangible situation to evaluate. Administrators usually have an array of personnel dispatched throughout the community to report road conditions. Glazener, for example, checks with Asheville school personnel from around the district. Meanwhile, Watkins utilizes a 10-man team, and as early as 3 a.m., he will assign six people to survey local roads and observe conditions around Montgomery County, particularly checking bus routes and possible “trouble spots.” A recommendation on how to proceed with the school day will be sent to the superintendent by 4:15 a.m., with an official decision will announced with 45 minutes. Local law enforcement can report on road conditions and monitor the crash reports. Road department crews can report on current conditions and also provide an estimate on their ability to treat the road surfaces.

Benson, meanwhile, said she also relies on the assistance of a Homeland Security field coordinator with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. 

“He keeps us advised of all weather briefings for our state and region,” she said. 

Some large or topographically diverse districts may be split in bad weather situations. In that way, only part of a school district may have to be closed. But for many school districts, this is impractical.

The Cloudy Crystal Ball

The decision to close schools becomes much more abstract when trying to make sense of weather forecasts. Weather forecasting is an inexact science. Forecasting precipitation in terms of timing and amount is one of the most difficult tasks meteorologists face. The importance of that forecast increases exponentially when you are dealing with snow and its impacts. In these situations, school personnel need to know how bad a situation is and how confident the forecasters are deciding on the outcome. An actual discussion with a meteorologist would certainly be helpful.

Weather forecasts are available from a variety of sources. The National Weather Service (NWS) has 122 local offices nationwide that provide the “official” forecasts and warnings, and the information is free. School administrators can even talk to NWS forecasters to get a better picture of what they expect. Private, for-hire forecasting firms, such as AccuWeather, can also be consulted. Whichever weather service is used can depend upon personal confidence levels and personal experience. Glazener said he prefers a local private forecaster over the NWS or large companies. Watkins said he feels all the available services are pretty much the same.

The best tool for short range precipitation forecasting is weather radar. Radar can pick up areas of rain, sleet or snow. You can track them over time and determine their direction and speed of movement. From this information, transporters can create their own forecast. In most cases, precipitation simply moves into a region. However, if the precipitation initially develops right on top of your location, which is fortunately rare, then there is little lead time with a forecast and little you can do but hunker down.

Community 4-1-1

Okay, now the decision has been made about a delay or closing. How do you get the information out to the parents and others affected? For years, the only source for “real time” information was the local radio station. As television grew in popularity, local TV stations became the conveyor of school closings. Still today, local television stations are the primary method of distributing closing information often through “crawls” on the bottom of the screen. Some districts had “snow hotlines” where you can call and get a recorded message. With the advent of the computer and the Internet, a whole new method of communication was born. Radio and television stations, and even now newspaper websites, can be used to pass along information. As soon as a closing or delay is reported, it can be listed on the website for immediate access to anyone with a computer or any portable electronic device that can access the Internet. School systems also provide updates, utilizing websites, Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts to post information on closures. School systems, especially smaller ones, developed contact lists and can automatically call, email, or text information to parents and others with the most recent updates.

Nothing is more problematic or potentially catastrophic as deteriorating weather conditions during the day when students are already in school. When should schools be dismissed? Case in point: Atlanta on Jan. 28, 2014. Although snow was forecasted to develop during the day, schools opened as usual that morning. The snow started in the late morning with temperatures in the 20s. As conditions deteriorated, schools started closing after lunch. Unfortunately, government offices and private businesses all closed at the same time. A massive influx of vehicles entered the road system. It was true that road conditions were adversely affected by the weather at least in some locales, but it was the sheer volume of traffic that developed into massive gridlock. Trucks carrying salt and sand couldn’t get to where it was needed. People abandoned their cars to seek shelter. In Fulton County, nearly a hundred school buses were still on the road at midnight. Over 2,000 students spent the night in their schools. The Clarke County School District, about 60 miles east of Atlanta, had a much better outcome. With a weather forecast similar to the one in Atlanta, Cathy Benson and her group opted to announce an early closing at 11:30 a.m., before schools even opened. Snow started to fall by 1 p.m., but everyone had already made it home safely. 

Dr. Ed Brotak is a retired professor of meteorology at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and is a freelance science writer.

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