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Many factors affect school closing, delay decisions

| Monday, Jan. 11, 2010

When snowflakes fly or temperatures drop, students wish for just one thing a snow day. Or at least a two-hour delay of school.

When the inevitable Western Pennsylvania winter weather issues arise, area superintendents are faced with the challenge of deciding if school can begin on schedule.

"Obviously, the health, safety and welfare of our students is our first concern," West Mifflin Area School District Superintendent Dr. Janet Sardon said.

Last week's series of snowfalls and frigid temperatures led many districts to delay early in the week and cancel school completely Friday. Typically, the decision-making process begins in the early hours with superintendents checking everything from road conditions to forecasts beginning as early as 4 a.m.

In South Allegheny School District, that's about the time the maintenance staff reports for work and begins clearing the school grounds and sidewalks, district public relations coordinator Laura Thomson said. District Facilities Manager Mark Zidek also checks conditions in the four boroughs that make up the district Glassport, Port Vue, Liberty and Lincoln so he can give Superintendent Wayne P. Gdovic a full report regarding roadways. Administrators often consult with local police departments, public works crews and district maintenance workers to help them determine if conditions are safe for travel.

Though most municipal maintenance crews don't take their cues from the district's schedule, most are aware that student safety will be a concern when road conditions aren't favorable.

"I always keep in the back of my mind that there's going to be school tomorrow," McKeesport Public Works Director Nick Shermenti said. "We (plow or salt) the main arteries, the hospital routes and the bus routes first. Then we hit the neighborhoods."

Superintendents will look to their counterparts in neighboring areas as additional information sources. Norwin School District Superintendent Dr. John Boylan said he telephones personnel in nearby districts as early as 5 a.m.

"We share information related to road conditions and what the weather might bring over the next few hours," he said. "Although each superintendent has his or her own unique geographic situation, there is always information that is useful in the decision-making process."

Many districts also put in a call to their bus company. Elizabeth Forward School District spokeswoman Jane Milner said Superintendent Bart Rocco must decide by 5 a.m. whether to delay or cancel and makes his decision, in part, by talking with the terminal manager at Pennsylvania Coach Lines.

"We have special concern about rural roads in Forward Township and some in Elizabeth Township," Milner said.

Icy roads are not only a danger for motorists, but for children waiting for transportation.

"We sometimes see 'slippages,' with cars going into bus stops and injuring the students there," said Dr. Michael B. Brinkos, superintendent of McKeesport Area School District.

Even when roads are clear, temperature still can be a factor for a school delay or cancellation. "Walking districts" areas that do not have bus service such as Clairton City, Duquesne and Steel Valley school districts are especially sensitive to air conditions because students may walk several blocks from home to school.

"Since we are a walking district, we always consider temperature and wind chill," Clairton Superintendent Dr. Lucille Abellonio said. "Beyond that, we look at snow accumulation and forecasts from the day. We also discuss the roads with the bus company that transports our students to other schools (outside the district)."

Sarah McCluan, director of communication services for Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which oversees Duquesne City School District, said there isn't a "magic number" for a delay or cancellation.

"There's not a set temperature that's the turning point," she said. "It's more of a combination of what information administrators have available from weather reports and local media. It's really about the health and safety of our students."

The National Weather Service notes that people can be outside for 30 minutes at wind chills as low as minus 15 degrees without danger, if they are properly dressed. NWS recommends dressing in several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing as air trapped between the layers provides insulation. Officials also recommend wearing a hat, as half of a person's body heat can be lost from his or her head, and covering your mouth to protect lungs from extreme cold.

Private and parochial schools include a unique factor in their decision from where their students are coming as these schools often have children from a number of districts making up their population. Propel Schools in Pittsburgh, which operates charter elementary schools in several communities and a high school in Munhall, follows the local public school district's determination.

"If the district in which the school building is located is closed, then that Propel school is closed," Superintendent Dr. Carol Wooten said. "For instance, if McKeesport Area School District is closed, Propel McKeesport is closed."

Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport looks at its largest "feeder districts," which include McKeesport Area, Elizabeth Forward, East Allegheny, Woodland Hills, South Allegheny and Pittsburgh Public Schools, to determine if its day will change.

"We're really at the mercy of our largest school districts," said Vice Principal Diane DiNardi, who, along with Principal Timothy Chirdon, ultimately makes the decision to close or delay. "When we see that the majority of our largest feeder schools are delayed, we typically also delay."

The local public school district often provides transportation for students who attend parochial and private schools, which also contributes to those schools' decisions. Dr. Robert Paserba, superintendent for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Trent Bocan, superintendent for the Diocese of Greensburg, said principals generally follow the same schedule of the school district in which their building is located.

Problems can arise when some of a school's feeder districts delay or cancel, while others operate on a regular schedule.

"It creates some havoc here," DiNardi said. "Some of our students come in late, and some of them will be here when we (in administration) aren't here yet."

Bocan said the school tries to be accommodating in such situations and leaves transportation decisions to parents.

"Principals get a lot of calls from parents asking if they should drive their children to school when the district they live in delays but their child's school does not have a delay," he said. "We tell them to just use their judgment and, if they can get here safely, to do so if they wish."

If a child misses school because of weather, it is considered a legal, excused absence under most circumstances. Most school officials said they wait until the morning to call for a two-hour delay or cancellation but will make the occasional exception.

"I'm sure each of us can recall times when weather forecasters predicted something dire during the evening news only to have the morning turn out to be very manageable," Boylan said. "However, if the indicators are clear that the morning will require a delay or cancellation, we will get the word out the preceding evening so we can all get a good night's sleep."

Even with the best plans and forecasts, conditions can change at a moment's notice and create unexpected issues. Superintendents said that a delay can only be changed to a cancellation if conditions worsen before children board the bus.

"Once students have left their homes for their bus stops and staff has left their homes to arrive at school, it is extremely difficult to change from a delay to a cancellation of school," East Allegheny School District Superintendent Roger A. D'Emidio said in the district's policy. "(The district) will do everything possible to ensure that students arrive safely at school and are returned safely to their homes at the conclusion of the school day."

If school is canceled, district personnel look ahead to determine when the snow make-up day can be scheduled. Many districts schedule up to an additional three class days per year to prepare for days lost to bad weather. The state requires 180 scheduled days of instruction. If the number of cancellations exceeds the number of built-in snow make-up days, classes are extended into scheduled summer vacation until the 180 days are met.

Staff writers Patrick Cloonan, Stacy Lee, Eric Slagle and Jennifer R. Vertullo contributed to this story.

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