Stay open, call a snow day or start school later? Close early or cancel activities?
When bad weather hits, here's how the decision about schools is made.
A message from Dr. Smyser
One of the most common questions I receive about Poudre School District is how I make the decision about snow days, and other weather-related delays or cancelations.
It’s a question that naturally comes up anytime I decide to close schools due to weather, delay school start times or cancel all after-school athletic and extracurricular activities, depending on conditions ranging from intense cold to intense heat. Parents and students may imagine that I wake up, look out the window and call for a snow day only if there’s a wall of snow outside. Others joke that I – like my predecessors – must be from Alaska and never have called for a snow day in my career.
The reality is not that simple, and I’ve only visited Alaska once.
When PSD gets a weather advisory from the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association or Emergency Management Services about a storm, we set our plan depending on when and where the storm or weather system is projected to hit. Contrary to what people think, calling for a snow day is mostly about transportation and road conditions, not the amount of snow we get. Our dedicated and kid-focused staff members closely monitor temperatures and live-video feeds from cameras across the region.
If a snow storm is coming overnight, for example, our transportation drivers start about midnight driving all over the roughly 1,800-square-mile district from Red Feather Lakes to Wellington to Windsor, reporting road conditions.
At about 4:30 a.m., myself, the executive director of operations and the director of transportation join a conference call with representatives of Colorado State University, the City of Fort Collins, Larimer County and various emergency management and response services. We discuss incoming weather reports, and plow schedules, as well as current and projected road conditions for when our buses leave the yard at 5:30 a.m.
Then, it’s decision time.
I typically confer with our executive director of operations about multiple factors, including the timing of snow removal in parking lots, how our buses will do on the roads, whether the plows can get to the main roads in time, and outside temperatures (thinking of students waiting for a bus). While safety of our kids is paramount, I balance that with the importance of students being able to go to school to learn and access critical services, such as breakfast and lunch services through our Child Nutrition Department.
My decision may have one of these outcomes: stay open, delay two hours or close. If we stay open, everyone goes to work and school as usual.
If we decide to delay or close, I call our communications team, and they begin the process of notifying parents, staff and local media of the delay/closure. All of this must happen by 5:30 a.m. so the calls, emails, social media posts and texts can go out before kids and staff leave for school. There are also instances, such as on Feb. 6, 2019, where conditions may prompt me to call for the cancelation of afternoon activities and athletics.
You can learn more about this on the PSD inclement weather procedures web page. We’ve found that our website is the most reliable way to reach the most people, so bookmark the page and reference it often.
Whatever I decide, I know that many people in our community will not agree with the outcome. That’s just a by-product of the job, and I understand that. If you as a parent don’t feel it is safe to send your child to school, you can always keep your child home.
Rest assured, PSD always uses student and staff safety as the guiding principle when making these decisions. But as I’ve just explained, it’s not easy nor simple.
So, next time you hear of a storm or other significant weather system coming to our area and see your kids rush to put on their pajamas inside out, flush ice cubes down the toilet, put a spoon under their pillow, and remember that PSD will be up from about midnight on to check the roads and make sure it is as safe as possible to get to school.
Sandra Smyser, Ph.D.