GREENFIELD — Amid one of the worst winters in recent memory, school administrators have repeatedly made the decision to shut school doors because of dangerous weather.
A lot of factors go into the decision to cancel school or institute a two-hour delay.
School officials are now starting to worry about how the time off will affect students as they prepare for benchmark ISTEP testing in the spring. Administrators are also concerned about how they will manage the remainder of the school calendar if the poor weather continues.
A two-day waiver granted by the state after the big storm earlier this month will help, but schools still have two snow days to make up. If weather patterns continue, there probably will be more.
Administrators say it’s pretty easy most days to decide to cancel school because of unsafe conditions, but the weather in the past month has made that call more difficult to make.
“It hasn’t been just traditional types of things involved,” Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said. “It’s been the quantity of the snow, and it’s been the inability to put it places.”
He said county crews have worked hard to remove snow, but dangerous winds and repeated storms have often put it right back where it had been plowed and shoveled.
“The crews just haven’t had the time to go back and round off intersections, and that makes it hard for the buses to make the turns,” Riggs said
Those are just some of factors that go into a superintendent’s decision to close school. It’s a decision that has been tougher than normal, Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris agreed.
“This is my sixth winter of dealing with this, and it is by far the worst winter for trying to figure it out,” Harris said.
While administrators want nothing more than to get students into the classroom, they agonize over the decision.
“It constantly weighs on you,” Harris said. “You look at everything from getting the kids on the buses to getting the bus down the road, and you wonder how cold is too cold.”
It’s not only the safety of the buses and their passengers that concerns superintendents. Harris said they have to consider staff and teenage drivers at the high school, many of whom are driving on snow and ice for the first time on narrow country roads.
Athough calling for a two-hour delay does help bus drivers maneuver better in the daylight, it creates new issues for parents who have to make adjustments, often at the last minute, to make sure someone is home with the children.
“There are all of those things that you have to worry about,” Harris said.
While a two-hour delay is better than no school at all, it takes children out of critical morning English/language arts and math classes at Eastern Hancock. Harris said those are important as students prepare for statewide testing.
“It causes our teachers and students to have to make all kinds of adjustments,” Harris said.
All four county superintendents communicate with each other and send drivers out on the county roads all hours of the night before they make the call to cancel or delay school. They also pay particular attention to weather advisories and official warnings.
dent Linda Gellert wrote in an email that district officials begin checking roads around 5 a.m. to determine if a delay or cancelation is warranted, if the decision hasn’t been made the night before.
“Generally, we don’t like to make the call on forecast alone,” she wrote.
“We don’t sleep well when bad weather is forecast. It is critical that we make the right call, and I worry about that on multiple levels.”
With the area in the midst of an abnormally frigid forecast, Southern Hancock Superintendent Jim Halik said it’s important to keep bad weather in perspective.
He often monitors local television stations to get the latest information to help him make decisions on whether to close school. This week, he also sought advice from some other experts: school officials in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska.
They have two of the largest school districts in the nation, Halik said, but they do not close school unless temperatures get to 60 below zero after multiple days. He also learned Alaskan administrators allow children to play outside until the weather dips to 20 below zero.
“I know we’re not Alaska, but I needed something to measure how my vehicles are going to perform in the cold weather,” Halik said. “We’re not really used to this severe cold here in Indiana.”
Steve Satterly, the district’s transportation director, said some of the stop arms on buses have frozen this winter. Mechanics also work to be sure fuel lines don’t freeze.
“That diesel fuel can start to gel when the temperatures get too low,” Satterly said.
It’s why mechanics get to the bus garage hours before buses head out to get them warmed up and running.
“Once the buses get warm, the drivers say they are ‘less grumpy,’” Satterly said.
Satterly only has one rule for his drivers, who he said take their responsibility of getting students to and from school during bad weather seriously.
“I tell them to use their judgment,” he said. “If they don’t think they can go down a certain road, then they need to let us know.”
Satterly will then suggest an alternative route and call county crews to get the road cleared.
They also have all their back-up buses started and running on stand-by in case someone runs into trouble. But so far, the only real trouble has been at the administrative office, where school officials must now shuffle the school calendar.
While all the county districts had built-in snow days on their calendars, they have lost more days than anticipated, meaning the makeup days will have to come later in the year after districts have already taken some of the statewide testing.
Mt. Vernon, Greenfield-Central and Eastern Hancock school administrators have plans to dip into the first week of spring break to make up missed days.
Southern Hancock officials, on the other hand, have elected to add days onto the end of the school year. But with summer school slated to start Monday, June 2, there is very little room to do that.