Tuesday, January 5, 2010

About School Closings

Many schools on the Missouri side are closed today due to combination of nasty temperatures and wind chills and icy, snowy side streets. There has been discussion in the community about these school closures and when they should happen. For example, even though the majority of MO side metro districts closed for today, Lee's Summit R-7 decided to stay open and have school. Some felt that this was good and some felt that this was a dangerous and bad decision by the district. It is hard to tell what the Kansas side of the metro will really do with schools as many of them are not yet in session; most are scheduled to start up again Thursday, January 7th.

First, before I air my view on this, a few things I will not do or that will not be a part of the argument, because they just muddy the waters and stir up ill will. 1. I will not compare Kansas City to any place that routinely has this kind of cold snowy weather. So there will be no saying Kansas City is wimpy compared to Chicago, or St. Paul, or Anchorage or Boston or Burlington, Vt. Every region has what it is used to. If this weather was to become routine, that every winter we could count on weather like this showing up, we would start having school more routinely in this type of weather. 2. I will not compare today's school situations with when I was growing up. First, because while I was going to school, I was either living in the most extremely urban environment there is--New York City or I was living in a very rural area which was very lightly populated. In addition to that, I went to a small school. Our bus drivers only had to deal with rural routes in one 36 square mile town, and half of two other 36 square mile towns. In addition, all were experienced drivers with years of experience driving down these rural roads. Conversely, our road crews also had much experience dealing with the roads. (Sidebar: If you ever move to a small town in snow country, and anyone says to you at Town Meeting or similar, "Hey, we need a Road Commissioner; want to run for the office?" Say NO, then RUN--politely of course. Road Commissioner is one of the most thankless posts in the world!) 3. In the 1970s, lawyers and large jury settlements had not yet run amok, and the schools were not quite so litigation conscious. 4. Many fewer kids were driving themselves to school. Basically, you had to be a senior, and better yet, over 18, and surrender your first born to be able to drive to school when I went to school. Nowadays, school parking lots are full of students' cars. Let's face it, most young drivers are dumb as a box of rocks, and even smart ones will make mistakes due to inexperience. Now, having said all that, let's get into this thing.

Some may be under an impression that schools find it easier to cancel. In reality, schools do not want to cancel. They would rather stick to the schedule, and end on time. They have a set number of days they have to be in session. Back in the day, it was 180 days. I don't think it has changed much. Sticking with the schedule is easier than having it get blown up by postponed days. Think how many things are booked literally years in advance. For example, some schools use community churches for their graduation ceremonies. Often they are bigger and more comfortable than any auditorium or gym the school has on campus. But the school must book the date with the church to reserve the space. If school gets too extended into June, this can be a problem. There is also all extracurricular activities, sports, field trips etc. to account for. So schools don't want to cancel. Not to mention that every day students are not in school, two things are happening. One, knowledge is leaking out of their brains at an astounding rate and two, some of the more vulnerable may be finding other things to do beside go to school and continue the habit of not going once the weather clears. It also must be mentioned that for working and single parents, finding some where for the displaced student to go is not always easy, and I would bet that some students not in school are home alone. However balanced against these ideas and the desire of a school to remain in session is the concern for student and staff safety plus keeping ambulance chasing litigation lawyers out of the pockets of the school district. Mainly, this is concentrated around transporting the kids to school, either kids riding in buses or kids driving themselves. The school administrator wants to know: what are the roads like? Can a car drive them? A bus? Or are they in such a shape that only 4x4s are getting through? Are they over the head of green 17 year old drivers taking the wheel in their first winter? A second factor is temperature/wind chill. Kids waiting out at bus stops when typically the daily low temp is achieved can be in danger if the weather is really cold. Also, some kids are poorly parented and supervised and get out of the house in inappropriate clothing, During the current cold spell, I have seen students in sandals, in shorts and young ladies in skirts without hose, tights or leggings. For some, they may not have good coats and mittens. In addition when there are heaps of snow around, and bus stops may be covered, or even plowed over, the kids are not waiting in a safe place, but sometimes out in the street where traffic is moving over streets with less than normal traction.

So, having said all that, I say this: respect the decision made by your school administration to have school or cancel school. If you feel that the decision is not correct, formulate your case why, and take it to the administrator and the school board. Sitting back and being an endless sniping critic does nothing for nobody. Nobody has done anything wrong by canceling school, or having school. The decision and its parameters are unique for each individual school district. For example, to take today's outlier, Lee's Summit R-7: Lee's Summit has their own bus fleet and drivers. They may feel that this gives them better drivers and buses then schools that hire companies to drive the kids. Lee's Summit may feel that most of the bus routes are clear enough for buses to go safely. They may feel that the district's upper middle class demographic will mean that more kids ride to school in their parents' 4x4. My only concern with a district like Lee's Summit having school: The boneheaded inexperienced younger driver. To me, that is when it is time for a parent to step in and say, "Buster, I'll take you to school or you're riding the bus. High morning commute is not the time to be gaining your winter driving experience." If a kid crashes going to school, lawyers could make a case that it is the school's fault for being open. I could make a case that it is the parents' fault for not snatching the keys out of Junior's hands. The same can be said of the inadequately dressed student. It's the school's fault the kid is running around in open toed sandals because they are in session. But it's the parent/guardian's fault for not insuring the kid is dressed properly. So you see how it could go for school administrations. That is why, most of the time, if a school district has any doubt about having school, they cancel school. The district's lawyers are much happier.

Two last notes: I realized that because I was thinking back to my school days, I used the somewhat outdated term "4x4" to refer to vehicles we would generally call "SUV" these days. Second, I always lived 1/4 mile from school, always. Thus, I always had to walk to school. Whether or not the bus was running was a moot point.

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