This has been an unprecedented winter. Many of us, as we reflect back on our own school careers, are hard pressed to remember even one or two days when school was canceled due to cold. This year we have been faced with five days in the same month!
While at first these cold weather days were seen as a novelty, it has now become frustrating for parents who need to find childcare and staff who are concerned about the learning their students are missing. Parents, staff and community members have been very supportive of the difficult decisions we’ve had to make, but some are beginning to wonder when enough is enough.
Making the decision to close school is never easy. This year it has been even more of a challenge following the governor’s decision to close schools statewide — setting the bar for what constitutes “too cold” for school. This has left school superintendents across the state scrambling as we try to work together to reach a consensus between districts while also considering the unique needs of our own communities.
The problem is a lot has changed since you and I went to school. People are more connected and vocal through the use of social media, litigation is more common, and our demographics and family situations look drastically different. When I grew up it was not uncommon for at least one parent to be at home as we waited for the bus, or a neighbor would pile kids into a van and drop them off at school. Employers, in those days, seemed to be more understanding and accepting when parents needed to come to work later than usual. But that’s not the case anymore. Today the majority of parents work, their jobs are more demanding and less flexible, and fewer neighbors and parents are around to keep an eye on the kids.
The result — more students are left alone at bus stops, many of which are not sheltered and offer little protection from the elements. Others have to walk a mile or even two miles to get to school. Without parents to help them select appropriate clothing, many of these kids may venture out without the warm hats, mittens, boots and coats needed to be safe in this severe weather.
It is these children and these situations that I must consider when making the difficult decisions about canceling school. When the temperatures drop, I confer with my staff to consider many questions: Will the buses start and run effectively in this cold weather? What if one breaks down and students are sitting at bus stops longer than usual? When exposed skin can freeze in just five minutes, how vulnerable are our students? Can we assure that each student will get to school safely?
These are not decisions I make lightly, especially when we’re now faced with the very real possibility of having to add time to the school calendar to make up for lost time in our classrooms. School board members will discuss various possibilities to make up for school cancellations during their Feb. 13 meeting. As these decisions are made, we will keep our families and the community informed.
Critics have told me that we’re too easy on our kids today. “It’s Minnesota, after all,” they’ve told me. But the reality is the safety of our students — all of our students — is our top concern. Placing even one student at risk is enough for this superintendent to err on the side of caution. Let’s all hope for warmer temperatures the rest of the winter and an early spring!
Stillwater Area Schools Superintendent Corey Lunn can be contacted at [email protected] or 651-351-8301.