Minnesotans love to discuss the weather, and this winter has given us plenty to talk about. A hot topic during one of the coldest winters in years has been school closings. In January alone, many K-12 public school students were out of class for five days because of below-zero temperatures and nasty windchills. And there are two months of winter still ahead.
In the chatter about closings, some say that we’ve become “winter wimps’’ and that the days off only give kids more opportunities to hang out at malls. And more than a few parents have complained about scrambling to make alternative child-care arrangements.
Others argue that student safety concerns did — and should always — drive school-closing decisions. They don’t want kids exposed to the kind of severe cold that can cause frostbite in just a few minutes.
The caution practiced by school officials this month should be applauded. Despite the disruption, the January closings were handled appropriately. Gov. Mark Dayton made the right call to close schools statewide the first Monday of the month, when temperatures were nearly 20 below. Because some districts were still on holiday break the previous week, Dayton was concerned that superintendents might have been away.
Gubernatorial oversight of school closings is not a long-term solution, however. In fact, the last time a Minnesota governor closed schools was in the 1990s during Gov. Arne Carlson’s administration. And that’s as it should be; state intervention ought to be rare.
The last four school closings this month — including two this week — were rightly made by individual district leaders. Situations vary from district to district, region to region. For example, some school systems park buses indoors, while others do not. In below-zero weather, where a vehicle is parked at night can affect whether it will start in the morning. Even if buses are on time, consider the long walks some students have to bus stops.
This month’s closures also highlight differences between family needs today vs. a generation or two ago. One superintendent recalled times when all weather-related closing calls were made by 6 a.m. or so the same day. That was sufficient years ago, when many moms were at home while dads went to work. But today, with so many single parents and moms and dads at work, families need as much advance notice as possible to make other arrangements.
In a recent commentary on these pages, a Minneapolis school nurse explained that even very young students are sometimes responsible for getting themselves — and sometimes their siblings — to school while parents are at work.
“Traffic can be detrimental to bus schedules; snow and especially cold also affect the most efficient schedules,” she wrote. “So the students wait in the cold, too frequently with faces, hands, feet and ears exposed to the below-zero temperatures.”
Some critics of the closings say a later start time or an early release are the answer, but these ideas actually can create more logistical problems for families. A full-day closing is often the better choice for schools and for families.
Gary Amoroso, director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent, said dozens of his members were on conference calls with one another as they made their recent decisions. He said school leaders use National Weather Service reports for guidance.
The number of school closings this month is unprecedented, and many students have lost an entire week of learning. Minnesota requires students to be in school a certain number of hours, based on their grade level, so some will have to make up lost time.
Most districts pad their regular schedules with more time than the minimum, but losing five instructional days means some will have to cancel or shorten future school breaks or add time to the calendar at the end of the year.
The January deep freeze has been challenging for everyone involved. But Minnesotans are fortunate that school officials in this state put the safety of students at the top of the priority lists.