Winter’s only a few weeks old and already the region has suffered from some unusual weather – several snowstorms and a dangerous cold snap. Just after the new year, all local schools were closed as more than 8 inches of snow fell on Hudson County. But since it’s impossible to predict exactly when and how hard a storm will hit, school officials are often left with a confusing decision: Close schools, open them late, or shut them early?
Recently, school officials in Weehawken, Union City, and North Bergen discussed how they make their decisions.
“That decision comes from the superintendent of schools in conjunction with public safety,” said Stanley Sanger, superintendent of schools for Union City. “The overall concern is the safety of children.”
He added, “You look for the most accurate information by watching television, working with the public works department, checking to see if they’re plowing. Sometimes you get news from the airport.” In addition, Accuweather provides updated alerts via e-mail.
Dr. George Solter, interim superintendent of schools for North Bergen, explained, “One of the things you always want to try and do is to keep the continuity of the educational process. So obviously you try and have school whenever you can, but you do not want to jeopardize or put anybody in harm.”
He added, “As a group we have a lot of people that get together: The business administrator, the board secretary, the director of elementary and secondary education. We’ll talk together and review the information we’ve collected and make an informed decision.”
“The overall concern is the safety of children.” –Stanley Sanger
Predicting the weather
“They send us reports, they give us percentages, like for the last one there was like a 70 percent chance of six inches of snow,” said Solter. “The weathermen have gotten a lot better. You know when a big storm’s coming. A couple of days out you know it’s coming. We start prepping. We make sure that the school maintenance workers are ready with plows and salt and whatever needs to be done.”
“I’m in constant communication with the building and grounds superintendent to make sure we get the walkways and parking lots clear,” said Robert Presuto, Secaucus superintendent of schools. “He keeps in contact with DPW, which is very important to ensure the buses are defrosted and working.”
Making the call
Once the information has been collected and the pertinent agencies consulted, it’s time for a decision. A large component of that decision rests on what time the storm is scheduled to hit.
“Not only is it the intensity of a storm; it’s the timing of a storm,” said Solter. “Sometimes are better than others. With this [last] storm, it started in the afternoon and went through the night. It was an easy call. The tough ones are when all of a sudden it’s going to start at 10 in the morning.”
“Usually you try to wait until the last possible minute so you can make the best possible decision,” added Solter. But meanwhile the clock is ticking, and the need to compile information must be balanced against the parents’ need to plan. This can be a major concern for working parents with small children, who need to make other preparations when school is canceled.
Sanger said, “We want to get our information out in a timely way so people can make arrangements for their children to be supervised.”
“Plus we have teachers that live in Pennsylvania,” said Solter. “Down the shore area. They’re making their commute and if it’s a storm they’re going to make their commute even earlier. You don’t want them to be halfway in and then get the phone call. So it just serves everybody to make sure it’s done early. And then food services. The kitchen staff is here early in the morning. So before they come in and start cooking the meals for the kids, you want to make sure that they’re not just in here unnecessarily.”
“But you’ve got to be careful,” said Presuto of Secaucus, “because if you make the decision too early and the weather changes, that can be an issue.”
Spreading the word
After the decision has been made, it’s time to let people know. “Most of the times it’s [decided] mornings between 3 and 5 a.m.,” said Kevin McLellan, superintendent of schools in Weehawken. “I have a robo-call that goes out to the parents, to staff. Then I will call the local stations, I notify the police department, I notify the crossing guards.”
“On our website we post that it’s a weather delay or whatever,” said Solter. “We try and get out as much information as possible.”
For the most recent storm, the decision was made early based on solid forecasting. “We called it probably about 8 at night, but that was a rare event,” said McLellan. “You knew at that time that it was going to impact at night and actually snow throughout the whole night.”
“Sometimes it’s an easy call,” agreed Presuto, adding that for the recent storm, “the governor declared a state of emergency. All state agencies other than emergency personnel were instructed to stay home.”
Not always perfect
Other times it’s a harder judgment call, one that can get messy – for instance when one town closes early and the one next door doesn’t, as happened during a recent snowstorm.
“Guttenberg had an early dismissal on one of the December days and we didn’t,” said Solter in North Bergen. “And it put a little pressure on us because Guttenberg sends their students to us for high school. They’re only kindergarten to eighth grade. So now the parents were calling the kids at the high school to go pick up their brother or sister, but the student at the high school wasn’t 18 yet so they can’t sign themselves out. And we said to the parents, I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”
Solter said that there are also cases where families don’t get the word, and a student shows up at a school that’s closed.
“What we do is we have people at every school during the school day,” even during the worst storms, said Solter. “Generally the maintenance workers are cleaning the steps, the custodians are here. Somebody still has to heat the building, so there’s someone always at the school.”
If the student’s parents cannot be contacted, the police are called and the Division of Family Services gets involved, taking care of the kids and reaching out to the parents.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.