Well, times have changed a bit since the old timers walked two miles to school every day, uphill both ways in subzero cold.
However, you could still hear the old timers discussing the hardships of a bygone era as they gathered around tables to drink coffee at their favorite spots last week. Why did they cancel school last Wednesday when temperatures dipped below zero, the old timers wanted to know.
Times have indeed changed when it comes to school closings. Some of the people involved in making those calls locally explained the considerations that go into making those decisions.
Suffice it to say the decision to cancel or delay the start of school starts early—as early as the night before. A lot of the decision is based on weather predictions, especially when it comes to cold weather like last week. Sometimes, those predictions are right and sometimes they’re not. Last Wednesday morning did not turn out to be as cold as it was predicted to be.
So, how cold is cold enough to call off school?
At North Crawford Schools, it’s a wind chill of minus 30 degrees, explained Stan Turben, the school district’s longtime director of transportation. Wind chill is the combination of temperature and wind speed that produces an estimate of what exposed skin would experience if it were exposed only to temperature. Minus four degrees Fahrenheit and a 20 mph wind would create a wind chill reading of minus 30 degrees.
Turben’s weather information was showing him early Wednesday morning that wind chills that cold or colder were what children waiting for school buses from 7 to 7:30 a.m. would be facing. In reality, the wind and temperature did not combine to produce wind chills quite as low as those that were anticipated. Wednesday morning, the wind chill only made it minus 24 degrees. It was actually worse on Monday when school was not cancelled and the wind chill reached minus 28 degrees.
On Friday morning, it was 11 degrees below zero, but the lack of wind meant the wind chill only reached minus 19 degrees.
Nobody is more aware of how things have changed when it comes to cancelling school than Turben, who has been running the school buses at North Crawford for the past 35 years.
Do you cancel school more often than years ago?
“Yes we do,” Turben said without hesitation. “It’s easier to error on the side of safety than to do things you’re not sure of.”
These days, Turben analyzes the situation and then makes his recommendation to the school district administrator Dr. Dan Davies. Like Turben, Davies is ready to error on the side of caution when looking at the potential weather in the case of severe cold or deep snow that makes the roads impassable.
Davies acknowledged there could be a bit of what he called “the domino effect,” as districts watch nearby districts cancel or delay school. He explained it’s pretty hard to decide it’s going to be okay to hold school when 56 other districts in southern Wisconsin have decided to close.
Turben and Davies try to arrive at their decision to cancel or delay school between 3 and 5 a.m. Turben indicated that on some level this is done so the bus drivers don’t have to start heading into work. He noted drivers can come from as far away as Boscobel.
Turben uses multiple sources for weather forecasts and in the case of snowstorms consults with the Crawford County highway Department and the local townships’ snow removal crews.
Davies emphasized the concern is safety.
“I’d rather have to make up a day in the summer than have a bus go into a ditch this winter,” the school district superintendent said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Davies readily acknowledged that times have changed when it comes to braving the elements.
“It used to be…well, you’re living in Wisconsin. It’s snowing. It’s cold. That’s the way it is…get used to it,” Davies said. “Times have changed. There are not as many kids living on farms. When the school kids lived on farms, it was different. The farm kids knew what it was like. They were use to it. They were out when it was 20 below…when the wind chill was 35 below. They were working out in that weather. We just don't have the same percentage of kids working on the farm as we used to have in the sixties and seventies. It was a much more rural economy and a higher percentage of the population was rural.
“The (school) administration in place 20 years ago was accustomed to having school—period,” Davies said. “Only under the most extreme circumstances was school cancelled. The buses can’t get there or the buses won’t start. Now, the focus is different. We ask is it safe to put the buses on the road.”
Turben echoed much of what Davies said. He noted that years ago, the drivers didn’t even wait to be told, they put tire chains on the buses in the morning. Now, chains are reserved to get kids home. Turben’s thought is that if you need to put chains on to get the students, then school should be cancelled.
Davies also raised another interesting point. A greater percentage of students than ever before are now driven to school and to some degree the safety of those children and those driving them must be considered in the decision to hold or not hold school.
So how many days have been cancelled and will days have to be rescheduled to make them up to meet state requirements?
“We’ll be looking at that soon,” Davies said of the cancelled day situation. North Crawford has cancelled two days for weather and had one early release and one late start.
One big change that occurred this year in terms of state regulations was the elimination of required days for instruction. The state now only requires a certain number of hours of instruction. Previously, the state required 180 days of instruction, as well as a certain number of hours of instruction.
North Crawford expanded the length of the school day by 15 minutes this year and that will add up to more hours. The North Crawford school day is 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
In previous years, a district could have enough hours, but not enough days; or they could have enough days, but not enough hours. Since hours are the only requirement now, missed time due to cancellations, late starts or early dismissals can be made up by adding to the length of the school day. Of course, adding whole days is another way to make up hours.
In addition to the state’s required hours of instruction, North Crawford also has a contract with staff that requires a certain amount of days and hours.
Things are similar in the Seneca School District with a couple of notable exceptions. Seneca decided to keep the school day the same length and runs from 8:05 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. that’s 15 minutes less per day than their neighboring district, North Crawford.
Seneca also has a contract with their staff that requires a certain number of days and hours as defined by the school calendar.
Contractually, the Seneca staff does not have to make up the first canceled day, but makes up the second cancelled day by giving up a day during spring break. Additionally, while the third canceled day does not have to be made up, the fourth also requires the staff to convert a second day during spring break to a workday.
Although the contract calls for staff to work a certain number of days, Seneca District Administrator Dave Boland explained that it is with in the power of the board to forgive lost days.
Boland like Davies, his counterpart at North Crawford, is very concerned with the safety of the students when it comes to deciding on whether to cancel school for weather-related reasons.
“It only needs to happen once,” the local school administrator said of a weather-related incident that results in injuries to a student. “You have to remember this involves some really young kids.”