Orono Schools Winter Weather Protocol

School+buses+tackle+the+winter+roads.

Kristin Andrus

School buses tackle the winter roads.

During these past two months the state of Minnesota has been hit hard with severe weather, forcing schools to shut their doors or modify their hours. Many people wonder what extensive planning and decision making goes into these days, and what the future of snow days may look like for Orono Schools.

“It’s a very consequential decision for someone to make, the decision to call off school for a day, because it impacts so many people in so many ways,” OHS teacher Peter Sherman said.

Student safety is always the priority of any school. Transportation and how students get to and from school is always a huge factor, due to the risk of accident or injury, whether they travel by bus, car, or walk to school.

“There are so many factors [regarding weather protocol] but I would say generally speaking the time of snow, amount of snow, temperature and wind chill all go together. Sometimes the question is ‘can they get drivers in here quickly’? First Student has been fantastic. They’re very responsive and have been great about getting the kids home safely,” Orono Schools Superintendent Dr. Flesher said.

For many Minnesota schools a requirement of a windchill of -35 degrees Fahrenheit, or a snowfall of more than six inches in a timespan ranging from 12-24 hours, has to be met in order for school cancellation.

“It all depends upon the timing of the snow, because that’s what makes it challenging and that’s the hardest to predict is the timing and the amount of snow. But we also take into account extreme cold as well, we don’t want students standing in the cold waiting for buses. If we could be in school bottom line we would try to be in school, for sure,” Dr. Flesher said.

When making these decisions schools discuss with local state agencies, schools and services to help determine their operation of hours.

“It’s a whole team of people that work together on these decisions. There are some outside partners that we work with like the National Weather Service…they start holding webinars at 4:30 in the morning which get down to very specifics with regard to temperature and wind and projected snowfall… but snowfall is a lot harder to predict. Then our transportation department, First Student, Mr. Jim Westrom is our director, Executive Director of Business Services, he oversees transportation. Then there are many of our other superintendents and other schools we discuss with. Sometimes we’re calling the cities and talking about when the roads will be plowed. So those are just a few of the people that are involved,” Dr. Flesher said.

A concern while making these decisions is the logistics of students being able to get to school if there is a late start or early release. When there is a late start/early release, many parents are unable to bring children to or from school without getting in the way of their work schedule.

In the event of modified school hours, the school will send phone calls, emails and text messages through the district’s notification system to all parents.

“Lisa Campbell is our Director of Communications. And she makes sure we can very quickly get out that information to students and families,” Dr. Flesher said.

For high school students who tend to be sleep deprived, late starts proving to be very beneficial in providing them the extra hours of sleep they need. When students show up to school at their later start time, they will have improved academic performance, and these extra hours of sleep can also help reduce car crashes among teens as well.

“I enjoy snow days and late starts a lot. I get to actually sleep in which makes me more motivated to learn and actually pay attention in school because I am more awake. These days are like mental health days, and they keep us safer by keeping us off the roads when they are unsafe,” OHS student Linnea Jensen said.

When Orono Schools have late starts the school will start at 9:00 a.m., giving students a two hour late start. Bus routes, Spartan kids and Discovery kids will all still be operating but with modified hours.

“I’m really kind of favorable for [late starts] because it counts as a school day and now you’ve given snowplows a chance to get snow off the road and it’s brighter out [making] driving conditions a lot safer coming in…The downside is you either shorten all your hours or you miss the first and second hour and that can have issues with trying to fit learning in,” Dr. Flesher said.

When the superintendent announces an early dismissal in the event of weather conditions, bus routes will stay the same; however, all after school activities and childcare are canceled or closed.

“The benefit for early release is you’ve had kids in school, which counts as a school day and so it’s not something you have to make up…Fast moving storms can be kind of tough to monitor, our last one on Tuesday everything was totally fine until 9:30 a.m. and by time we were out at 12:30 p.m.; we had like four to six inches of snow. It was a rough day, but it’s tough to manage and there’s a lot of moving parts to try to manage too,” OHS teacher Thomas Borrell said.

According to the MN Department of Education, the state of Minnesota requires all schools to meet a minimum number of hours per year. If in the event of an extensive number of snow days schools may have to extend their school year. For grades 7-12 students are required to get 1,020 hours, while grades 1-6 are required to get 935 hours of learning.

“When we have early release, it makes me feel behind in my classes I missed. I feel stressed out about the work I need to catch up on, and the roads driving home as well,” Jensen said.

The school district’s superintendent decides if there should be a snow day, but in some instances the governor makes the call to shut schools down for the day due to severe weather, the last time this happened was Jan. 6, 2014.

“I love snow days. I feel like kids today are missing out on a little bit of the fun of a snow day. So, I have kind of mixed emotions on these days. I look from the student viewpoint, just call it a snow day and let’s give everyone the day off. I also understand the pressure to make sure we’re getting in the required number of days so that we don’t have to go later in the year. So, I think you’re constantly balancing those two things,” Borrell said.

Depending on the modified school hours the superintendent will also then take into account whether after-school activities, programs and sports will still resume as normal.

“I coach two different seasons, fortunately, I don’t coach the winter season, so it’s not as big of a factor but as a baseball coach, weather is constantly a factor with our spring season, it’s really a difficult to try and manage and be flexible and still be prepared for the different meets you have coming up,” Borrell said.

The past five years schools across the country have begun developing distance learning options for snow days prior to the pandemic. This virtual alternative to canceling school, may take away many students’ favorite type of school day-a snow day.

“My kids that are in a different district had eLearning days. They’re not as good as school days. It’s sometimes hard to transition. A lesson plan for a regular class and transition that same plan to eLearning. So that sometimes is a difficulty for teachers. Students, I don’t think get as much out of eLearning days, but there are things that can be done, and I think certain classes are maybe easier than others, and also some lesson plans may be easier to transfer as well. If we do implement eLearning and have multiple snow days, we no longer have to go into summer. So that’s a big benefit,” Borrell said.

Though eLearning may prove beneficial in eliminating cutting into the summer, the system receives mixed reviews from schools who have implemented this design for their snow days. Problems such as bad Wi-Fi, or school websites being slow interrupts learning. Another problem expressed by parents from these districts targeting mainly the younger students, is the need for the parents to help the child stay on task and make sure they are able to access their online material which makes it hard for parents to work.

“If we learned anything from the pandemic and distance learning, it’s that learning can happen when we’re not in person. And so, if we’re able to adapt to distance learning like a school day, then I think that’s fine because then we would also avoid having to tack on days at the end of the year,” Sherman said.

The pandemic has proven that schools can function on an eLearning basis, but some feel that replacing snow days with eLearning eliminates a day of rest many high schoolers advocate for. eLearning could be implemented in the near future for Orono Schools, but in the meantime, students continue to enjoy snow days and modified school hours when severe winter weather is present.