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Benson column: Mother Nature, a crystal ball and how we determine school closings

As I write this column, weather has caused the School District of River Falls to cancel school seven days this winter and there certainly remains a few more weeks of Mother Nature's wrath. Our district really appreciates the parent and community support and patience with our decisions to date. Through this column I will share that there really is no crystal ball used for making these decisions, yet there are a few rules we follow.

So,  just what is the district policy related to weather related school closings? How are such decisions made? Simply stated, there is no published playbook that draws the line in the sand (or snow) for when/how these decisions are made. Rather, it's a bit science and a bit art -- and often the crystal ball is difficult to read.

Below are a few rules we try to follow in making these decisions:

Err on the side of safety.

If we make the "wrong" decision, we lean strongly toward the side of caution. Inside the crystal ball we see bus safety, high school students driving vehicles, in town walkers, bitter temperatures, ice, snowfall totals and a host of high-tech forecast reports. When the decision is "iffy" we look closely into the crystal ball and see children -- I'll gladly accept criticism for being "too safe" over putting our kids at risk.

There will be better days in June.

This rule is partnered with rule #1 and basically recognizes that roads will be more safe in June. If we have a high number of winter school closures that cause us to run out of options for school calendar revisions, we can hold school later than usually into the month of June.

Note: Wisconsin requires "X" number of instructional hours (student contact hours vary grades K-5 vs. 6-12) per year. We can only shuffle our inservice/face-to-face instructional days so many times and we eventually have to just tack more days (hours) onto the end of year (June). We will never violate rule #1 to avoid holding school a bit later into June.

Rely on the pros.

Over the years I've narrowed my source of information down to the National Weather Service (NWS) for the most accurate information. Otherwise there are a zillion weather sources upon which we can rely. Our "go to" source is the NWS and we can obtain specifics of predictions such as hourly forecast information, precipitation totals, wind speeds, temps, local and regional info, etc. Their information allows us to improve the clarity of our crystal ball but even then, mother nature can even fool the pros.

In addition to breaking down the specifics within their predictions, the NWS issues several different levels of weather-related statements for both snow and windchill. For example, in addition to predicting specific details like future snowfall amounts, wind speed and temps, the NWS also issues "summary statements” such as Warnings, Advisories, Watches, Storms, Blizzard, etc.  These summary statements can often help guide our local decisions.

For example, a wind chill "advisory" will generally not result in a school closure whereas a wind chill "warning" generally means we will close school. With snow the NWS sequence goes from a lower level "advisory" up to "warnings" and then up to "blizzard." General rule of thumb is that a "warning" will result in a school closure -- again depending on time of day for which the warning has been issued, and the actual path of the storm. This past Tuesday was a storm "warning" but the actual path of the storm made it an "iffy" decision -- but we cancelled.

Look out your window and test drive the roads.

Regardless of what the NWS predicts, we all know Mother Nature is still in charge of our neighborhood. Regardless of whatever the NWS predicts, we always have to look outside and access our local weather and road conditions with our own eyes.  

Morning analysis begins at 4 a.m. with a review of our local roads and weather while also checking to see if the NWS forecast has changed overnight. We drive the roads and communicate with some of the snow plow experts - who by the way, do amazing work.

Communicate the decision.

We know parents with young children really appreciate early notification from the district and therefore, whenever possible we try to give advance notice. Sometimes decisions have to wait and be made the morning of the related decision because we want the benefit of an extra 12 hours to track the storm and/or see if the forecast changes. The crystal ball is sometimes more clear with time.

We live in Wisconsin

There will be days when we hold school while it is snowing. There will be days when the roads will be covered with snow. We live in Wisconsin and learning to navigate the weather is part of what we signed up for when choosing to live in this great state. We won't cancel school every time it snows.

Ignore the critics

Hindsight is a wonderful gift -- and some people have 20/20 hindsight vision. Never be concerned about the critics when you are in the middle of making a decision. Have I made some "bad calls" over the past 25 years? Yes. Those decisions became obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Learn from mistakes and move on -- and don't forget to smile when kids are safely at school in June.

So, as long as these weather-related school closure decisions are a bit art and science, there really is no crystal ball. Sometimes we "get it right" and sometimes (with the benefit of hindsight) we appear to miss the mark.

There really is no crystal ball for making weather-related school decisions but if there was, we would look into that ball, through the glitter of snow, and beyond the concerns of the critics and in every case we see children -- safe children -- because we are most interested in Rule #1 and #2.

Thanks, and be safe!