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Delays not easy call for officials dealing with bad weather

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:43 p.m.

When a winter storm dropped 3 to 4 inches of snow in Western Pennsylvania on Jan. 25, school districts had to decide whether to dismiss classes early.

That can mean taking several factors into account, officials say.

Carlynton Superintendent Gary Peiffer, on his way home from a meeting at The Waterfront, decided to close school early.

“I was on the phone with people (who were) on the parkway, just going through the driving conditions in the snow,” Peiffer said.

But Keystone Oaks School District, located about 10 miles away, opted to keep students in school.

“We've found that with so many of our parents working, that sometimes by having early dismissals it can create some challenges for family,” Keystone Oaks spokesman Jim Cromie said. “We only use early dismissals when it's absolutely necessary.”

The differing decisions illustrate the difficulty districts can have when bad weather hits. Though forecasters typically give advance warnings of storms, superintendents sometimes have to play meteorologist, in oder to assess whether to delay school or close early. They take into account not only snow but ice and wind chill temperatures.

“It's not an easy decision to make,” Peiffer said. “People don't call delays or cancel school lightly, so you want to be sure you've got the best information at hand.”

Peiffer consults weather forecasts, though he doesn't decide what to do until 12 or 24 hours beforehand. His decision to delay school for two hours on Jan. 28 didn't happen until that morning, when an ice storm hit.

Superintendents also talk to each other and to other school and municipal officials about road conditions and other factors that could endanger students or staff.

Because Keystone Oaks includes students from Castle Shannon, Dormont and Green Tree, Cromie said the district works “with as many of our neighboring municipalities and school districts as possible.”

That doesn't mean every decision works out well.

Some parents criticized school officials for closing before Superstorm Sandy hit in October, Cromie said, because the storm largely missed Western Pennsylvania. It dumped snow in West Virginia and in parts of New York and New Jersey.

Safety dictates the situation, Cromie said. “If we had our druthers, there would never be a delay or a closing.”

Keystone Oaks explains its weather emergency procedures on its website and offers ways to track school delays and closures. It notifies students, staff and parents by a telephone alert system.

Carlynton is considering such a system, which would be useful on days such as Jan. 22, when a water-main break closed Crafton Elementary but the district's other two schools operated on a two-hour delay.

“It'd just be another way to be responsible to parents in the community,” Peiffer said.

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-8527 or dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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