Decision to close schools a tricky one

Decisions for schools not easy

January 21, 2014
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Burgettstown, Peters Township and Washington were the only schools in Washington County to have classes Tuesday. At top, elementary school students at Washington Park school in Washington head for their buses Tuesday afternoon. At left, a woman uses a folder to protect herself from the driving snow as she crosses South Main Street in Washington. Above, a Washington Street Department truck plows East Wheeling Street in Washington.
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
A snowplow waits at the traffic light before it moves across Pike Street to clear North Central Avenue in Canonsburg as vehicles slip and slide on the hill. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
A woman uses a folder to protect herself from the driving snow as she crosses South Main Street in Washington Tuesday morning. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
The Washington Street Department plows East Wheeling Street in Washington Tuesday morning. Order a Print

It’s a tough and time-consuming decision, one that makes school kids dance and some parents groan. Superintendents across Washington and Greene counties spent many early mornings this winter deciding if their district should close or operate on a two-hour delay.

While safety is always a top concern, there are a variety of factors that influence the decision.

On Tuesday, as snow accumulation varied across the area, all but three school districts in Washington and Greene counties chose to close. Officials in Burgettstown, Peters Township and Washington school districts decided that buses, teachers and parents could navigate the roads.

“If parents are concerned or they feel their road is too bad to travel, we tell them they have the option to keep their children at home,” Burgettstown Area School District Superintendent Deborah Jackson said. “We don’t get many complaints.”

Most districts have procedures in place for superintendents to follow when making the decision. Others leave the decision up to their superintendent’s discretion. The procedures include conversations with local municipal and state Department of Transportation officials, the National Weather Service and the district’s transportation director.

“We don’t have specific guidelines,” Jackson said. “My transportation director gets up early and drives the roads. He advises me.”

At Washington School District, Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said she received numerous complaints and concerns from parents about her decision not close or operate on a two-hour delay Tuesday. DiLorenzo posted on Facebook as to how she makes her decisions.

“The determination begins at 4 a.m. or, at times, the evening before. Of course I review the weather forecast given via media coverage but also get winter weather advisories from the National Weather Service via Washington County Department of Public Safety. I typically make the determination by 6 a.m. or in some cases, the day before. I also confer with other superintendents early in the morning and possibly the bus garages if someone is available.”

DiLorenzo said she was honest with parents when she explained Tuesday’s decision.

“All of the info I reviewed regarding (Tuesday’s) situation indicated less snowfall as the day progressed and a greater concern for late afternoon and evening dropping temperatures. (Tuesday’s) temps were not in the range which required a delay,” she said. “Delays and cancellations are made for the safety and security of our students. However, they must be practical ones.”

DiLorenzo said the differences between Washington School District and surrounding districts are the small coverage area and lack of rural roads. The district provides bus transportation to the Washington Park School, but not to the high school.

“Our district covers only 3.5 miles and we do not have rural routes to consider,” she said.

When a school decides to cancel, administrators said they choose from one of several make-up days built in their school calendars. Most district have three days, which, for some, started with Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday. If snow days exceed the calendar make-up days, the district makes up the remaining days at the end of the year.

Many, like Peters Township School District still have make-up days available.

“We still have one day, April 21,” Shelly Belcher, the communication coordinator for the district said.

But with temperatures dipping below zero with wind chills, they could be using their last day soon. A wind chill advisory is in effect until 1 p.m. today and could make it feel like minus-16, the National Weather Service said. The cold weather will last into Thursday. Some districts were considering a two-hour delay midday Tuesday and Fort Cherry and Avella officials made the decision to operate on a two-hour delay late afternoon Tuesday.

When it comes to bitterly cold weather, superintendents said they rely on the National Weather Service and weather charts for guidance.

“We take wind chills into consideration,” Brenda Rupert, executive assistant to the Canon-McMillan School District’s superintendent. “But it all depends. There is no science.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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