Gateway Superintendent’s Corner

Dr. David Hopson

As I write this column, the media is alive with dire warnings of Hurricane Sandy and the potential for damaging winds, rain, and even possibly snow. As we found out last October, a fall snowstorm can create significant damage, messy commutes, and multiple ways to impact our daily routines. While Gateway escaped the brunt of last October’s storm (as opposed to the 2008 ice storm), many of the schools surrounding us were cancelled for days. So despite the fact that it’s only October, and with hopes that the weather forecasters will be wrong about the coming storm, I thought it best to review the district’s protocol on weather-related cancellations, early releases, and late starts.
As the Gateway District encompasses seven towns, 205 square miles of real estate, and large deviations in elevation there are often great differences in weather conditions on the same day within our district. This, of course, impacts travel conditions and sometimes requires choosing to delay the start of school, to cancel school, or to release students early based upon conditions which may only be hazardous in one or two towns.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll begin with the delayed start or canceling of schools. As you would expect, this decision needs to be made early in the morning to provide families with time to modify their daily schedule, to ensure that the appropriate responses at our schools happen on a timely basis (meals, calling staff, removing snow, and sanding/salting), and to provide ample time for the bus companies to alert their drivers. My goal is to have the information I need by 5 a.m. and to make the decision no later than 5:15 a.m.
I receive my information from a number of sources including the conditions at and around my home in Blandford, weather reports from a number of sources, information from staff members at the other end of the district, as well as information on the road conditions from our highway departments and occasionally from the Russell State Police Barracks. Based upon these facts, I have to make a decision for the entire district; as a result, any single town experiencing bad road conditions may affect the entire district. The decision between a delay and cancellation rests on the timing of the storm and predictions of how long it will last. A cancellation is called for if the road conditions are bad, the storm has not ended, and is predicted to continue for several hours. On rare occasions, we also cancel if the storm is predicted to start during the morning and last throughout the day (i.e., road conditions are good at 5 a.m. but may be bad by the time the buses hit the road). What many people don’t realize is that administrators and custodial staff are still expected to report to the schools during these cancellations although students and the remaining staff are not expected to attend.
An early release from school is a more difficult decision. If a storm is predicted to start sometime during the day and students are already in school, the decision is when, or if, to release students early.  Even if there isn’t an early release, we also need to consider whether or not after-school activities or evening events should be cancelled. This is complicated because of the time needed to arrange busing for students; the inaccuracy of weather forecasts to predict when the storm will start, how rapidly it will intensify, and how long it will last; and the differing release times of elementary verses the middle/high schools. In many cases the weather forecasts are not accurate enough to pinpoint a particular starting time and we end up transporting students home after a storm has already begun, with the idea that the road conditions will only continue to deteriorate and we need to get off the roads 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.
The bottom line in making these decisions is the safety of our students—is there a reasonable expectation that buses can safely negotiate the roads and deliver students to the schools or back home? I won’t cancel or delay school every time we get a little snow or ice because our road crews work diligently to keep the roads safe and stay ahead of the storm. However, based upon the information I receive about our local conditions, I will not hesitate to be the only school district in the area with a delay, early release, or cancellation. Because of the need to keep abreast of local conditions, I extend my thanks to each individual who provides information regarding the conditions of the roads in their towns—the few minutes that this takes is essential in helping to ensure that I am able to make a sound decision based upon current conditions in our seven towns.

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