Gateway Superintendent’s Corner

Dr. David Hopson

I usually provide the process for canceling, delaying the opening, or releasing students early due to weather sometime in late November or early December. As we’ve seen from our October snowstorm, these timelines may be a bit off this year and I thought now would be a good time to review this process as there continue to be a number of people who are not pleased no matter which way the decision falls.
We all need to be aware that the Gateway Regional School District encompasses seven towns, 205 square miles of real estate, and large deviations in elevation. Historically this means that there are great differences in weather conditions on the same day within the district. Often this means that higher elevations may get snow or ice while lower elevations get only rain. This past storm followed a similar pattern except that higher elevations received larger amounts of drier snow (meaning no downed trees or power lines) while lower elevations received less, but heavier snow (leading to downed trees and loss of power). Often I get complaints during the winter of the terrible road conditions (therefore, why did we have school) or the roads were in great shape (therefore, why didn’t we have school). Given this ‘no win’ situation, I still think it’s important to understand how the decisions are made, even if there will always be someone who doesn’t agree.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll begin with delaying the start of, or canceling, schools. Due to the need to provide our busing contractor with time to alert their drivers, to give families time to modify their daily schedules, to ensure that the appropriate communications occur in a timely fashion (modifying meal schedules, notifying staff, removing snow, and sanding/salting sidewalks and parking lots) and to notify the media, the decision to cancel or postpone school needs to be made as early as possible. My goal is to gather the appropriate information by 5 a.m. and to start the notification process by 5:15 a.m.
An early release from school is a more difficult decision, as students and staff members are already in school. If a storm is predicted to start during the day, the decision is when, or if, to release students early. On top of this, even if there isn’t an early release, I still need to determine if there will be after-school activities or evening events, or whether these should be cancelled. These decisions are complicated by the need to arrange busing for students; the accuracy of the weather forecasts predicting when the storm will start, how rapidly it may intensify, and how long it will last; and the differing release times of elementary versus the middle and high schools. In most cases, the weather forecasts are not accurate enough to predict a particular starting time and we end up transporting students home after a storm has already begun, with the idea that road conditions will only deteriorate and we need to get buses off the road as soon as possible. Other times, we release students early based on forecasts only to find that the storm doesn’t begin until after the students would normally have been home.
I do receive information from a variety of sources including the conditions around my home in Blandford, weather reports from a variety of sources, information from staff members throughout the district, reports from highway superintendents, local police, and occasionally the State Police Barracks in Russell. Based upon this information, I make a decision for the entire district regarding a delayed start, cancellation, or an early release. The key to making these decisions is the safety of our students – is there a reasonable expectation that buses can safely negotiate the roads, deliver students to school, or home, and whether we have the capability to meet student needs at school (for example, recent problems with water and electricity). I will not cancel, or reduce school hours, every time we get a little snow or ice, or have other minor problems, because our towns and the district are fortunate to have great road crews and other support staff. However, I will also not hesitate to be the only school district in the area with a delay, early release, or cancellation.
I extend my thanks to each individual who provides information regarding the conditions throughout our towns – the few minutes this takes is essential in helping ensure that I am able to make a sound decision based upon current conditions in our seven towns. I also thank the many individuals in our schools and towns who make it possible to traverse the roads in poor conditions, ensure that we have utilities up and running, and in general deep our schools and towns running efficiently. As most of the school staff and students return to bed after a cancellation, we need to remember the many road crews, school custodians, maintenance crew and administrators that still report to work to ensure that the issues preventing school from being in session are resolved as quickly as possible.

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