The following is a detailed explanation from Dr. Carolyn Turk on how we reach a decision on when to cancel school due to winter weather.
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MCAS results, graduation rates, curriculum standards and school accountability are all important factors in the daily life of a school superintendent.
However, no decision is more scrutinized or analyzed by the school community than the decision to open or close schools due to inclement weather. Parents, faculty and especially students closely follow weather forecasts when a big storm is predicted and no matter what the ultimate decision is regarding school closing, some segment of the community is unhappy and will quickly call or email a school office to let us know of their displeasure. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful for the community to understand the process that is followed in making this important decision. Contrary to the belief of some we don’t follow the practice jokingly mentioned by a former colleague a few years ago who said his decision was simple: “In the morning, I open the back door, and if the dog goes out then we have school,” he joked. “If the dog refuses to go out, we close!”
Seriously, just like the TV meteorologist, we begin tracking a storm a few days before its predicted arrival. While the ultimate decision is the superintendent’s, we do not act without gathering critical information from public safety and snow removal agencies such as the police, traffic and parking officials, and public works departments.
Of course, we are also closely monitoring multiple weather forecasting sources. The main factors that are taken into consideration in deciding whether or not to hold school are predicted accumulation, timing of the storm, traffic and road conditions, and what other districts are doing.
Depending on the storm, the importance of the factors can vary. For example, sometimes timing is more important than total snowfall, as three quick inches at dismissal time can bring our transportation program to a halt, but eight or nine inches ending in the pre-dawn hours allows crews time to clean streets, sidewalks and parking lots.
Snow accumulations are another factor and forecasters frequently use accumulation ranges that vary in depth. Cambridge is often on the low end, while suburbs are at the high end, depending on the path of the storm.
Since the safety of our students and staff is paramount, traffic, road and sidewalk conditions are perhaps the most important factors.
We will not open schools if our custodians and City staff cannot clean the sidewalks and parking lots around the school. In order to measure these conditions, it is not uncommon for operations staff to drive around town at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to check on road conditions.
We have even brought empty school buses out to make runs to ensure that they can travel down the city’s many narrow streets.
Finally, while we do check with neighboring districts, we don’t always all act in sync. Each town has different issues to deal with: some let residents park on school grounds during storms, some have hills that ice up, and some towns simply get more snow.
So while the child in all of us hopes for a snow day, we don’t always get our wish. I hope that the school community finds this helpful and understands that – regardless of the call – some people are going to be unhappy, and at least in Cambridge we can’t blame the dog!
Dr. Carolyn Turk