Making the Call

As a child growing up in Maine, I would be glued to the TV when snow started to fall and wonder if a snow day was pending. As a superintendent, I have a new perspective on weather calls. Modern technology has added a new twist on this with the advent of things such as texting and social media. When my son was still a high school student, he would get numerous 5 AM texts from friends, who wanted a scoop on weather calls. The district’s number of Twitter followers, as well as my Twitter followers, jumps every time there is a major weather event. I also have several students, who email me before every potential weather event. After a decision is made, inevitably there will be someone who doesn’t like the decision.

Given the recent storm – Hurricane Matthew – I thought I would take this opportunity to explain what goes into making the call. Once we are concerned that a weather event may happen, we begin to look what meteorologists, law enforcement, county emergency management and others are predicting. Often that data is clear, and we make the call as early as possible. Sometimes the data is iffy and too close to call. In both insistences, the primary factor is student safety. Can we get students to and from school in a safe manner? This is followed by – Can staff get to and from school safely? We have a large number of staff members who drive into New Hanover County from counties as far away as Onslow, Duplin and Bladen.

I cannot give enough praise for the work of organizations such as the National Weather Service and the New Hanover County Emergency Management Team under the direction of Warren Lee. They provide invaluable information and support, as we try to make a decision about weather and school closing. Local media also plays a role in the decision making process. We start getting calls from the media early, so that they can inform their viewers. As much as possible, we try make the decision the evening before an event. With that said, Mother Nature is not always cooperative. Hurricane Matthew is a prime example. The storm’s predicted course altered significantly early on, and we decided to dismiss early on that Friday due to the change. We wanted to give parents and employees a chance to make plans and preparations.

Another consideration, especially here in hurricane country, is the possibility that our schools will serve as shelters. Several of our schools are equipped with backup generators for this purpose. School administrators and custodial staff at these schools work around the clock if they are activated as a shelter. The decision to open schools as shelters comes from the New Hanover County Emergency Management Office.

After the weather event, the next question is – How fast can we get students back into school? Again, student safety is the prime consideration. Our principals check their buildings and Operations personnel are tackling issues and preparing the schools so that we can resume school. Our Transportation teams are out checking roads to make sure buses can roll and roadways are safe. Our goal is to get students back in the classroom as quickly as possible. Extended closings impact childcare, community calendars, access to meals, and much more. Many of our parents are working parents, and missing multiple days can create a hardship for them. For some of these students, the only hot meal they receive is when they are in school.

While staff and students may celebrate the unanticipated break, parents want to maintain their routines. All of this can and does lead to confusion and frustration. That is not the intent, but comes with the territory when trying to predict the weather. We will always put student safety first when making a weather call, and we will always try to give parents as much notice as possible.

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