Column: Decision to close school for bad weather a 'no win' when you're the superintendent

Column: Decision to close school for bad weather a 'no win' when you're the superintendent cold. Even when you have to dress like this to go outside and the time it takes to freeze to death is less than five minutes, someone will second guess a school superintendent's decision to cancel school, local administrators say. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)


Wild winter weather kept Naperville students home not once, not twice, but an unfathomable three times this week. Kids went stir crazy. Parents caught cabin fever.


Cooped up with my kids, I vowed to uncover exactly what was motivating our school leaders. Why were classes really canceled Monday, Wednesday and Thursday but kids were in school on Tuesday as scheduled?


Armed with some troubling theories, I went straight to the sources — Naperville District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges and Indian Prairie District 204 Superintendent Karen Sullivan.


“Is it true that you’re actually an undercover plant, deep in the pocket of the daycare industry, making millions off the backs of working parents by canceling school as often as possible?” I said to Sullivan, putting her squarely in the crosshairs.


“No, that’s not true,” Sullivan said with a laugh. Exactly what Big Daycare would want her to say.


Undeterred, I went to Bridges.


“Are you in fact a sadistic madman, reveling in the torture of schoolchildren who miss Ribfest because they’re still making up snow days in July?” I posed to Bridges, confident I had him right where I wanted.


“Obviously we get days where conditions may not be safe for kids or anyone to be outside for long periods of time, today being one of those days,” Bridges replied Wednesday, when temperatures bottomed out at 22 degrees below zero, wind chills approached -50 and Naperville schools were out for the second of three emergency days this week.


Bridges claims to simply have the kids’ best interests at heart. Balderdash!


Like a terrier tugging on the unraveling mitten, I wouldn’t relent. I’d seen the posts on social media, first from parents early in the week saying the kids should be in school Monday despite snow-packed roads, parking lots and sidewalks. “Buck up ya little snowflakes,” was the gist of it. “You’re messing with my summer vacation plans!”


At the other extreme came the posts Tuesday from parents insisting they would keep their kids home whether school was canceled or not. “My child is made of porcelain and he/she will shatter in the cold,” the posts said, or something to that effect.


“Don’t cancel school.”


“Always cancel school.”


“I can’t find last-minute childcare.”


“We have to stay home and make those fun videos of boiling water freezing in midair!”


And on and on and on.


Sometimes it seems that no matter what they decide — to cancel classes or to keep school in session as scheduled — folks like Bridges and Sullivan are always the bad guy to some and heroes to others.


“This is one of the best decisions to armchair quarterback,” Bridges said of the second-guessing from parents and students alike. “Conditions change, and it can be the wrong decision. It’s easy to look back and make the decisions, ‘Why didn’t you late-start?’ or ‘Why didn’t you cancel?’ I learned a long time ago, if you make data decisions and make decisions in the right spirit, you can’t take those reactions personally.”


Snow and cold days have been a part of school life for generations. Why is it that things seem so different now, with such passionate reactions from all points on the do-cancel/don’t-cancel spectrum?


“To me, just how science from the meteorology standpoint has changed over time, I think our meteorologists are better at predicting,” Bridges said. “These snow days and cold days are events now that we build up to.”


And then there’s the social media factor, which provides not only a vehicle for that second-guessing, but has also made Bridges and Sullivan celebrities of sorts among students creatively lobbying for cancellation.


“With the explosion of social media, it becomes in some sense a phenomenon,” Bridges said. “We build this expectation of, ‘yeah, it’s going to be cold.’ (Wednesday and Thursday) I would describe as brutal. When we’re dealing with wind chills of 10 to 15 below, that’s not brutal. That’s cold.”


Though Bridges and Sullivan are quick to point out there is no magic threshold for temperature, depth of snow or any other singular factor that will automatically cause school to be canceled.


“We have just over 18,000 students who ride buses and we have to make sure we have enough drivers who can drive buses, that the buses are working, that the drivers can get to the buses to make sure those buses are running,” Sullivan said, also mentioning similar concerns for teachers, support staff and others. “There are just a lot of moving pieces, and I think those are sometimes things that parents might not think about.”


Both Sullivan and Bridges talked about conference calls that are being held and information being gathered at early morning hours when most parents and students alike are still sleeping, unaware whether there will be school just a few hours later.


Like this past Monday. In that case Bridges and District 203 took the unusual step of notifying families on Sunday that school would be in session on Monday after an imposter social media account masquerading as Bridges’ had sent out a notification to the contrary. In the interim, 5 inches of snow fell overnight into Monday morning, worsening conditions severely.


“I was out driving the roads at 4:30 Monday morning,” Bridges said. Ultimately, the decision to cancel went out about 45 minutes later to parents who’d gone to bed Sunday in the belief their children would have school Monday. This left some of them voicing their displeasure on social media about the need to secure last-minute childcare.


Bridges and Sullivan say they consult numerous sources when making these determinations. Among them: the National Weather Service, the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, the city of Naperville, DuPage and Kane county school superintendents, and others.


To this point, that’s led to four cancellations this school year, counting the Monday after Thanksgiving. And while a maximum of only one more day would have to be made up if used, Bridges and Sullivan hope to avoid what would mean lengthening the school calendar by up to a full week in May/June due to those make-up days.


“Calling a snow day or a cold day or any of those is probably the least favorite decision that a superintendent has to make, and we all make lots of decisions,” Sullivan said.


“This is sometimes a no-win. And that just comes with the territory.”


Rob Manker is a freelance writer who lives, works and parents in Naperville.