Another winter storm is laying out a fresh blanket of headaches across the St. Louis region.
“I’m like, when is it over?” said Teresa Padratzik.
The corporate recruiter was on her way to pick up her two children who attend school in the Parkway District, one of several across the St. Louis region that dismissed students early today. On top of that, all the snow days this school year are gnawing into her vacation time and delaying projects at work.
“I guess I’m kind of lucky; I can work from my home and tap into my office work,” Padratzik said. “But you can’t get too much done with two little ones at home because as soon as you get on the phone they want to scream and cause all sorts of ruckus.”
Ask any school superintendent how the decision is made to call off classes because of bad weather, and the answer is likely to be the same: It’s a tradeoff between wanting to make sure kids are learning and wanting to make sure they are safe.
When the decision has to be made after those kids are already at school, other factors come into play: Will parents or caretakers get the word? Have alternate arrangements been made? Will the weather get worse before the kids can get home safely?
“It’s a logistical challenge, I’ll say that,” said Patrick Wallace, spokeman for the St. Louis Public Schools.
After monitoring the forecast through Tuesday morning, Wallace said district administrators chose to dismiss students two hours early. And with more than 27,000 students attending schools with three separate start and end times, that’s no simple task.
“We had to make sure that the bus drivers didn’t go home after they dropped off the students this morning,” Wallace said.
Wallace said the district quickly began notifying parents that their children would be headed home early today. To keep elementary students safe, bus drivers were instructed not to drop off a student if the adult who normally is waiting for them isn’t there when they reach their stop. Two schools, Sigel and Walbridge Elementary, function as holding sites where students could stay until their parents or guardians can take them home.
“Let’s say they get out of school at 4 o’clock, and now they’re getting out at 2 p.m.” Wallace said. “If the bus driver drives up their stop and there’s not an adult there to meet them, they will return those children to either the north side or south side school. We don’t want to let little kids off without adult or parent supervision.”
So far, SLPS has piled up six snow days because of nasty winter weather. Makeup dates have been set for two, one on Feb. 14 and the other on March 14. Wallace said they want to wait for warmer weather before rescheduling the remainder -- although that can present another set of problems.
“A real concern will be that our students, and everybody, in every district, get as many instructional days as they can before they sit down and take the state test,” Wallace said. “There’s a concern if you make up the days in June, and they take the test in April, it doesn’t really help students learn as much they can before they’re being asked to show what they know on a test on a state level.”
Dealing with spread-out suburban districts
In Rockwood, which covers 150 square miles, spokeswoman Kim Cranston said that parents received an email early this morning saying district officials were watching the weather carefully to determine what changes in the daily schedule might have to be made.
“We know what the forecast is,” Cranston said the note said. “Please pay attention to your phones and your email and check the website. Should we make a decision to cancel school, we will do that before noon.”
Compared with many districts in inner-ring suburbia that are more compact, Cranston said that Rockwood families and bus driver have to cope with a lot of subdivisions with hilly, curvy roads. “It’s always a challenge for us,” she said.
For Parkway, spokeswoman Cathy Kelly said the decision to dismiss students early was difficult but necessary.
“We want to have school every day,” Kelly said. “That’s our business. But when they began talking about the weather getting worse this afternoon, we went ahead and decided to dismiss two hours early.”
For high schoolers, that meant the day ended at 12:30 p.m., with middle schoolers going home at 1:15 p.m. and those in elementary school leaving at 2 p.m. Parkway put the word out at 10:30 a.m. in the morning.
“We wanted to let parents know as soon as possible,” Kelly said, “because for working parents, that can be a problem, especially those with young children.”
In a district that covers 68 square miles, she added, the weather can be variable even within its own boundaries. And officials also have to take into account the different kinds of routes that buses have to take.
“A lot of times,” Kelly said, “the bigger roads, like 141 or Olive or Manchester, might be fine. But the buses have to go back into the subdivisions. We have to be able to get students and staff here safely, but we also have to clear the parking lots of 30 buildings, so the buses and cars can get in and out.”
The high schools present a special concern, she added, because so many students drive to school and often are not that experienced on the roads.
Like many districts where students have missed an unusual amount of school because of the harsh winter, Parkway has had to cancel two days off that the students originally had. On Feb. 14, which had been a records day, and May 23, the Friday before Memorial Day, classes will now be held. If any more time is lost, Kelly said, students would attend school on the Presidents Day holiday and the spring semester may have to be extended past Memorial Day.
How superintendents decide
Last month, when bitter cold and high winds brought visions of days off to local students, Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty sent parents a letter outlining the factors that he and his colleagues take into account when deciding whether classes should be held. In dangerously low wind chills, he urged parents to drive their children to school or keep them in a warm car until their bus arrives.
Marty also answered questions he said he had received from parents about a snow schedule, where the school day could start later than usual in bad weather. He said he was discussing that option with the Parkway board for possible use next year.
Kelly noted that in early December, there was a day that “was quite bad in the morning but by 10:30 or 11, after the rush hour, it was fine. That would have been a day we could have had a late start.”
Marty concluded his letter with a reminder that this winter in St. Louis may be bad, but it could be worse.
“As you may know,” he wrote, “I came to Parkway from a school district in Wisconsin. I understand the challenges and implications that weather has on running a school district and I want our students to be in school. Please know that ultimately our decisions are always based on the safety of your children.”
Or, as Kelly put it, echoing the weekend prediction from Punxsutawney Phil:
“It’s been a crazy winter, and I don’t think it’s over yet.”