Does the snow day threshold change?

Holland Public Schools were closed Thursday due to snow. (Jan. 23, 2014)
Holland Public Schools were closed Thursday due to snow. (Jan. 23, 2014)

ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — One West Michigan superintendent explained to 24 Hour News 8 that while pretty much all school districts will close when winter weather is extreme, when it comes to a day where the likelihood of closing is only 50/50, school districts look at different things.

Thursday, Holland Public Schools were closed due to weather. Nearby, Zeeland a public Schools remained open.

“We do worry about what it might look like if one district is open and another is closed, especially if we’re in the same snow bands,” Zeeland Superintendent Cal DeKuiper explained. “And there are a number of factors that play into that, and it’s pretty rare that one is closed and one is open.”

DeKuiper said that despite the close geography of the two districts, how their students get to school differs, so what they look at every morning is likely to differ somewhat, too.

“A lot of people will assume I look out the window and decide what to do, and really it’s a pretty lengthy process,” said DeKuiper. “When you look at these things, you really try to err on the side of caution. And so today was a 50/50 day. We could have gone either way.”

DeKuiper said a much higher population of Zeeland students drive to school, or are driven in to school, so their major concern is how roads and subdivisions look. Holland schools, on the other hand, have a lot of students who walk to school, so their main concern is sidewalks.

“We all have a little bit different issue,” said DeKuiper. “We have country roads, or city roads, or sidewalks, so we’re a little bit independent. But we try to stick together and read what we think is appropriate to do.”

Holland Public Schools Director of Communications Tom Page told 24 Hour News 8 that many Holland students walk a mile or less to school and when the sidewalks aren’t clear, that’s dangerous.

“You’re trying to make the best decision you can at 5:30 in the morning. It’s dark and not very safe,” said Page.

He also said Thursday morning, only about half of Holland sidewalks were clear.

DeKuiper admitted that he’s never totally sure he made the right decision when it comes to winter snow days.

“You’re always second guessing yourself,” said DeKuiper. “In fact, when you get here to work, when you know that the responsibility for all these lives and safety lies here, you’re never completely confident in the winter.”

He also said it’s important that parents make the best decision for their children, and their situation when it comes to heading to school on a treacherous winter day.

“Don’t let us force you to make that decision,” said DeKuiper.

The school district did see an about 2% increase in absent students, many of whom were schools of choice students whose parents have to provide transportation to Zeeland.

The district still saw about 94% attendance levels on Thursday. The state requires 75% of the district is present for it to be counted as an instructional day. School districts get six days to use for inclement weather before they have to start making up time.

24 Hour News 8 asked if the number of days already used ever factors into a decision to close school or not.

The short answer from a dozen West Michigan school districts is no.

“They’ll think, ‘Well, I’ve only got one left. We better save it.’ we just can’t work that way. Student safety is so important,” said DeKuiper.

Each day is looked at individually, with student safety being the highest priority. In the Holland and Zeeland area, DeKuiper said districts have agreed a windchill of -15 degrees is an automatic school closure.

Tom Page from Holland schools said that the state does not encourage districts to think about the days they have used already in the year, but rather put student safety first.

“I do think for most of the districts in Michigan, 99.9%, it’s safety first and let’s count our hours second,” said Page.

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How other districts make snow day decisions (listed alphabetically):

Allegan Public Schools: “The threshold does not change based on the number of snow days that have been used.  Road conditions, visibility, temperature, and forecast all play a role but not the number of “forgiven” days used or unused,” Superintendent Kevin Harness said.

Grand Rapids Public Schools: “No way, shape or form does that come into a single part of the decision making,” Communications Director John Helmholdt said.

Hastings Public Schools: The decision is based on student safety. The criteria does not change based in the number of days accumulated. The decision is made in conjunction with our transportation supervisor and consultation with surrounding districts, Interim Superintendent Chris Cooley said.

Holland Public Schools: “Any time you choose safety first it’s a safety issue,” Communications Director Tom Page said. He also said the state does not encourage schools to look at number of days used when deciding whether or not to stay open.

Hudsonville Public Schools: “We do not adjust threshold to close schools,” Superindent Nick Ceglarek said.

Kalamazoo Public Schools: “Days used are not a part of the decision. The determination is made on specific weather conditions at the time of the decision,” Executive Director of Communications Alex Lee said.

Northview Public Schools:  Superintendent Mike Paskewicz said the decision to close is not dependent on the number of days allowed by the state.

“We begin our decision making around 3:00 a.m. (unless evening conditions are so severe and have no chance of subsiding – then we start around 8:00 p.m.) and try and make our final decision no later than 5:15 a.m.,” he said.

He outlined the following steps:

  • Constant conversations between the transportation director/grounds crew and the superintendent throughout the process. Sometimes as frequent as every 10 minutes.
  • Review the weather reports from the National Weather Service.
  • Compare those reports with local news outlet weather reports.
  • Contact local law enforcement and inquire about road conditions.
  • Have some one drive the roads in the Northview community to determine if vehicles and our buses are able to travel the roads safely.
  • Walk some of the more troublesome routes to determine if kids can make it down the street.
  • Contact neighboring districts and ask about their conditions as we have families who drive into the Northview district from other districts under the the schools of choice program.
  • Determine if we can clear snow from the school parking lots and sidewalks and keep them clear until school starts.
  • Recheck weather reports to try and determine if the storm will continue and for how long — getting kids home is also a concern.

Decision criteria:

  • Safety of students
  • Temperature
  • Wind speed and chill
  • Road conditions
  • Maintenance concerns

Otsego Public Schools: “The number of days already used is not a deciding factor; getting our students to school safely is our priority,” Communications Director Holly McCaw said. Click here to read Otsego’s policy.

Tri County Area Schools: “We do not change our threshold for closing no matter how many snow days have been used. We always look at the weather and road conditions from the viewpoint of the safety of our students, staff and parents. A big thank you to the transportation directors, operation directors and administrators who put in long hours on these days as many are up at 3 am and may work full days whether school is canceled or not canceled,” Superintendent Allen Cumings said.

Wyoming Public Schools: “State days and number of days used or not have no bearing on the decision.  Solely based on weather/road conditions,” Superintendent Thomas Reeder said.

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