Decision to cancel, delay school complicated in Fayette-area districts
By Karl Polacek
Published: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Poor weather conditions such as those expected next week require careful decisions by school officials, who often make the call to delay or cancel school very early in the morning.
Administrators often are on the roads in their districts long before the sun rises. They communicate with each other, reviewing conditions in neighboring districts.
“Those decisions affect thousands,” said Mt. Pleasant Area School District Superintendent Timothy Gabauer, adding that he takes the process very seriously.
Officials in the Connellsville Area and Southmoreland districts and those at Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High agreed with Gabauer that the decisions must be made based on the safety of the students.
James Lembo, director of transportation for Connellsville Area, makes the decision for the district and usually for the Catholic and private schools served by buses under contract to Connellsville.
“It is very difficult trying to predict the conditions because of the different terrain areas in the district,” Lembo said. “After several days, are the school grounds clean; will the buses start? After heavy snow, what are the conditions in the 11 or 12 parking lots (in the district?)”
The conditions of the buses of the contractors who provide transportation also must be taken into account, he said. In extreme cold, whether the buses will start is another factor. Lembo said the district uses 60 to 70 buses.
Then Lembo checks the condition of the roads and contacts other districts to see what problems they may be having.
Gabauer said his process is “as simple a process as anyone can imagine.”
Gabauer begins gathering information the night before, when he checks the weather forecasts. He may be up by 3 a.m., checking forecasts again. Usually, by 4:15 a.m., he may be on the road to the Donegal area. He said the conditions around Donegal Elementary School are the determining factor.
While he is driving, Gabauer may be checking the latest forecasts, including forecasts provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which can give him conditions at times during the morning, and talking with officials from other districts.
“I try to get as much data as I can,” Gabauer said.
He drives around on some of the more difficult roads in that area. He also checks with drivers and the mechanic, who have many years of experience on the roads in the area. Generally, by 5 a.m., he has completed his data gathering.
Gabauer said that usually includes contacting Lembo at Connellsville. The districts share similar problems on the mountain roads adjacent to each other.
“By 5:15 a.m., I have to make a determination … delay or cancel,” Gabauer said, “because at about 5:30, the drivers start arriving. On some trips, they have to make some long-distance drives.”
Snow is one problem, Gabauer said, wind chill is another. He has information about how long the skin of the students can be exposed before conditions such as frostbite begins.
Sometimes, it may just be a matter of delaying the start of school. Gabauer said he has to be careful, however. He must determine if conditions will degrade later in the day.
Gabauer said he is happy to discuss the decisions he makes with residents of the district.
Southmoreland Superintendent John Molnar said he goes through the same process, but contacts school districts in other locations, like Yough. He is often on the phone by 3:30 a.m., checking with other superintendents and checking forecasts.
Molnar said the district has no schools in the mountains, which helps his decision process. But he also rides roads around Scottdale, especially problem areas that normally give the buses trouble.
Don Favero, principal at Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School, said the decision usually follows those made by Connellsville Area, because the district provides much of the transportation for Geibel students.
All said the priority is for the safety of the students. Yet they must balance that with time lost from the instruction process.
Lembo said days are built into the school calendar as makeup days.
This year, Dr. (Dan) Lujetic (Connellsville's superintendent) built additional school days into the calendar,” Lembo said. “He seemed to have had good foresight. He put five (snow days) in. We still have three snow days left. If more are needed, the district will need to be creative so we don't have to extend the school year too much.”
Molnar said a string of delays can cause problems.
“We can delay if the wind chill is bad,” he said. “If we delay when it is 15 below, then the question is, what if we have two weeks of that; then that is 20 hours of instruction time.”
None of the officials said they prefer early dismissals, which come with a different set of headaches. While sending high school students home a little early does not create a problem, sending a kindergarten or first-grader home when someone may not be there is a huge problem.
Alerting parents and students is easier than it used to be. Connellsville, Geibel and Mt. Pleasant have systems which automatically call each home when activated and announce cancellations or delays.
Southmoreland does not have such a system, yet. Molnar said such a system is being considered.
All use the three major Pittsburgh TV stations, along with radio and local cable. Molnar said he also places a notice on Southmoreland's website and sometimes places notices in the windows of the entrances of some of the schools.
Mt. Pleasant Area posts a notice on Mt. Pleasant TV.
Every one of those contacted said the process is all part of their jobs.
Attempts to contract the Frazier School District superintendent for this story were unsuccessful.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-626-3538.
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