Behind-the-scenes look at how schools decide to close for severe weather: Safety, state laws and snow-day assignments
They’re the words kids go to sleep dreaming about: “Snow day!”
But for school officials, the decision to close schools for weather conditions like this week's one-two punch of snow and subzero temperatures is far from simple.
School administrators throughout the Chicago area say they pore over weather forecasts and road conditions, and consult colleagues in their own district and others before making the call to close schools.
And while some parents and students are grateful for the midwinter time off, others fret about what kids will do while parents work, as well as the possibility of makeup days tacked onto the end of the school year when families are ready to jump into summer activities. A recent change in state law has some districts turning the old system on its head by offering self-directed learning activities for students to do at home while stuck indoors this week.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into the decision to cancel school:
“The right decision doesn’t exist, because no matter what you decide, you’re going to upset somebody,” said Tony Sanders, chief executive officer of Elgin-based School District U-46, the second-largest district in the state.
While the top priority is the health and safety of students and staff in their trek to school, there are other factors, Sanders said, especially in his district, which is about 60 percent low income. In deciding whether to close schools, he not only considers the frigid temperatures and road conditions, but also where students will be if they can’t go to school.
“For some students, this is their meal, this is their heat during the day,” he said. “We are so much more than a school.”
In the announcement to close Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday and Thursday, officials advised students to “stay indoors” and provided information on the city’s warming centers. The Chicago Park District also offered drop-in centers as a safe, warm place for students.
Like other school officials, Sanders said he’s constantly looking at weather forecasts as he weighs his decisions. He said he drives the roads himself early in the morning and consults leaders in surrounding districts.
Police and fire officials also weigh in, officials said.
“It’s better to have multiple inputs on this,” said Tom Hernandez, spokesman for Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202.
While some schools own buses and employ their own drivers, other districts, like Plainfield, hire an outside company to oversee transportation, Hernandez said. That’s another voice to consider before making the call.
“That becomes an issue if drivers cannot get to work to drive their bus,” he said. “They’re not our staff, so we can’t cover for them.”
Illinois state law dictates that schools must offer students at least 176 “instructional days” and set aside five “emergency days” to make up for any canceled days, according to Jackie Matthews, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. If all emergency days are used, the district can ask for approval from state and regional education officials to use an Act of God Day, which is not required to be made up.
Outside of those mandates, it’s up to local districts to decide when to cancel school and how to make up the days, she said.
A change in state law in 2017 allows districts to define an instructional day. The change allows districts, including Wilmette Public Schools District 39 and Libertyville District 70, to this week launch alternative programs that provide students self-directed activities to do from home. These at-home learning days are considered instructional days, so no extra days will be added to the end of the school year.
“Businesses have this model. You can work from home,” so why not schools? said Erik Youngman, District 70’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
During days off this week, Libertyville students must participate in Self Directed Learning Days assignments at home. If they don’t complete them, they will be marked absent, Youngman said. Students can choose from a variety of options, depending on their grade level, and have one week to turn the assignment in to their teacher.
Examples of work completed by students, so far, includes labeling household items in another language, cooking something and blogging about it, practicing math or researching a topic, Youngman said.
“This gives us an opportunity to be creative,” he said, and it avoids using emergency days in early June. “This is better learning than that, I would argue.” He has received mixed feedback about the new program from parents so far, Youngman added.
But while students must engage in learning, and submit proof to their teachers, the days are not designed to have students “sit in front of a computer for hours.”
“Maybe it’s a snow day, and they want to go out and play.”
In the age of social media connectivity and instant gratification, Superintendent Dan Bridges, of Naperville Community Unit District 203, said he often uses the analogy of a baseball game for anxious, curious parents and students.
“The White Sox don’t cancel a game if the forecast says there might be rain,” he said. “It’s the same approach here. As we know with Chicago-area weather, it can change in moments.”
Given the extreme cold predicted Wednesday and Thursday, Bridges said it was important for student safety to make the call early to close schools. But often he’s up late at night and again early in the morning to make his final call, prompting anticipation on social media.
Like other district administrators, Bridges’ Twitter feed is filled with creative suggestions and feedback from students in the form of GIFs and memes with Bridges’ face, or quoting from his school-closing announcements.
“And Dan said…,” one student tweet this week read, and then Bridges’ school-closing announcement was quoted, appearing like a Bible verse.
“For the most part, I do enjoy and appreciate the sense of humor and creativity of our kids,” Bridges said. “It’s a fun way to engage on some level.”
Sanders, of District U-46, said he gets the same attention on Twitter, with his head pasted onto various famous characters.
“I’ve been Jesus, I’ve been Thor, I’ve been Captain America when I did close school,” he said. “Students find a way to really demonstrate their talents and abilities in technology.”