Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Snow Day: An Insider’s Viewpoint

If you have ever lived in the same place as winter and you have attended school, you know all about the great gift of the Snow Day.  School children in northern climes eagerly follow impending snow forecasts and go to bed praying for enough snow that the buses won’t run, the carpool won’t make it out of the garage, and school will be closed.  Enough snow and the magical word “CANCELED” scrolls next to the school’s name under TV images of the morning news. Hallelujah!  The gods of winter shine down on students everywhere.

In Colorado, a snow day is most likely to occur between the months of November and March, but is possible as early as September and as late as May.  Some winters our school may close for snow two or three times, and sometimes not at all.  School kids view any large amount of snow falling over a weekend or during school vacations as a colossal waste.  Because I live in a state that is accustomed to copious amounts of snow, it generally takes a sizeable storm to persuade school officials to cancel.  Probably 8”-10” or more. And even with that much snow, it’s all a matter of timing.  Snowfall that starts in the late afternoon and wraps up before the morning commute will likely not result in a snow day, only in student anguish.  The more the snow falls during the night and throughout the morning, the higher the chances of a day away from the books.

In the south of England, where I grew up, it’s a different story for two reasons.  Firstly, they’re not used to much snow and they don’t have the plows to cope with a whole lot more than a dusting.  They get a few inches on the ground, and the whole place screeches to a grinding halt.  Schools close, businesses too, and the airports start canceling flights. Your holiday to Spain gets delayed by a week or your mother-in-law takes up residence in your guest room until the daffodils appear.  The second difference is the unfortunate fact that, when I was at boarding school in England, most of the teachers lived on campus.  We were all stuck together and no one needed to drive. A decent amount of snow resulted in the added pain of learning Latin conjugations while watching the world turn to white outside the window, too much discipline enforced to enjoy it.

For kids, the best kind of snow day is the one that falls on the day of the big math test, or the dreaded sex ed talk.  Miss something you never wanted to do in the first place, and it’s a double bonus.  Reason to celebrate, to sleep in, and spend a cozy day at home in your pajamas watching movies and drinking hot chocolate. Maybe, if you’re feeling lively, hitting the sledding hill. Life never felt so good.  And even if your dad insists that you shovel the driveway or pick the little balls of ice out of the feet of the dog, it’s all a whole lot better than 7th period English or canned peaches in the school cafeteria.

But, kids, here’s a little secret that you may not have considered.  As much as you love a snow day, rest assured that your teachers love it more.  Sons and daughters of teachers know this already.  They’ve witnessed the happy dance performed in bathrobes by their mom or dad the teacher, otherwise known by hundreds of miserable former students as Mr or Mrs Harvey.  When I became a teacher, any visions I may have had of my teachers grumpily plowing through the snowdrifts, sitting dejectedly at their desks in front of an empty classroom swiftly disappeared.  There was nothing more pleasurable than receiving that early morning phone call and heading back to bed safe in the knowledge that I didn’t have to face the little reprobates that day and there was one less day of lesson planning I had to do.

Now I’m the head of school in an independent school.  It’s my job to call the snow day.  My decision entirely.  Could there be a better job on earth?  In my hands rests the fate (for at least one day) of all the students at my school, all the teachers and their families, and all the parents.  This is big stuff.  This might quite possibly have been the sole reason why I wanted to be a headmaster in the first place.  How many times, as a student or as a teacher, was my glorious day-off completely dependent on someone else? I remember one time, during a big snow storm, when schools were announcing closures left and right. My school stayed open because the head of school had taken a sleep-aid pill and no amount of phone calls by her desperate staff could raise her from her slumber.

Now I keep a close eye on the weather forecast.  I’m sensitive to barometric pressure drops and darkening skies to the west.  Any sniff of the white stuff, and I’m up at 5 a.m. tuned in to the weather reports like a hawk.

It’s a giant responsibility.  Make the wrong decision and I’m guaranteed to enrage huge numbers of people.  Miscalculate and no one’s my friend.  Too much snow and I choose to keep school open: the teachers who drive fair distances are irate, parents are mad because they had to take their darling cargo out in dangerous conditions, and the kids hate me because we all know what they’d rather be doing.  Not as much snow as forecast and I elect to close: the parents are seething because they still have to go to work and now what are they going to do with their kids home all day, the more fastidious teachers are upset because this would have been the perfect day to start that new curriculum unit they’ve been planning for months, and even the occasional child is upset because they would rather hang out at school with their friends than be bored at home. (Who am I kidding, that last one was just a lie!)

It’s a huge test of my authority, wisdom, and judgment.  Closing school for snow is one of the more public decisions I make.  In addition, there’s an unwritten rule, as head of a small independent school in a decent-sized city, that I follow the lead of the local public school district.  That’s what the leaders of other private schools in the area have advised me.  Is this wise, I ask myself?  One of the joys of running an independent school is our ability and willingness to be nimble, to base our decisions quickly and efficiently on the needs of our students.  Do I really want to be making decisions on the collective wisdom of a giant bureaucracy, an animal whose kind has proven indefatigably that decisions are hard to come by and are as often as not based on matters of politics and finance rather than what’s best for children?  And do I want to be following their lead at five o’clock in the morning when my own ability to make sound decisions has been called into question by anyone who’s ever seen me in a sleepy state, despite the bed head.

The public schools have more complex issues than I do.  They have fleets of buses to consider and children waiting on street corners in frozen conditions.  They have high school students who drive themselves to school, which I do not, and test-taking schedules so complex and frequent that they frighten the corduroys off any half-respectable college professor.  They have thousands of employees and almost as many students (or is it the other way around?) whereas I am catering to a couple of hundred families.

My friend Meg photoshopped this picture of me (in my terrible
Halloween costume) dancing in front of my school, celebrating
calling my first snow day.
And so the day I had been anticipating arrived soon enough in my first year as a head of school. Early in the winter we had had a couple of close calls, a few inches of powder here and there, but not enough to cancel.  Now in early February, just as we were getting ready to celebrate the hundredth day of school, the forecast looked promising.  On Monday the weather men talked about snow coming at the end of the week.  On Tuesday, they were making noises that it could be a significant storm.  On Wednesday, they were getting more specific about timing of the snow – arriving Thursday evening, likely to snow all through Thursday night, all day Friday, and ending some time on Saturday morning.  On Thursday morning, they were still hedging their bets.  If the cold front stayed more to the south, we would see 8-10” of snow.  If it came a little bit further, we might see 12-14”.  By the time I drove home on Thursday at the end of a long afternoon, the temperature dropped significantly.

Thursday evening, I took the light-rail downtown to meet my partner Steph for dinner.  By the time I got to the restaurant, the first flakes were falling.  By the time we ordered dessert, the snow was coming down hard in the downtown street lights and settling on the roads.  As we drove home, it was clear that this storm had arrived, kicked off its boots, and settled in for the long haul.

I flipped on the weather forecast.  The predicted totals were on the increase.  Anywhere from 12-24”.  That’s a school-closing kind of forecast.  As I continued to watch, a number of major school districts and independent schools to the south of where I live were beginning to announce closures.  My school is a 45 minute drive to the northwest.  The public school district there was silent.  I called a couple of my administrative staff who live near the school.  Snow was falling heavily and the roads were getting slick.  It was 9:30 p.m. The forecast continued to call for copious snowfall.  Guessing (it turns out correctly) that the school district would remain undecided until the early morning, I had a decision to make.  I knew our families and staff would appreciate going to bed knowing they wouldn’t have to set their alarms.  I knew school would be closed and I didn’t want to wait until dawn.

Sensing the magnitude of the moment, I made the call.  In a great ‘first’ of my career, I pulled out the heavily guarded secret codes which gave me access to the television stations’ websites and entered the information.  SCHOOL CLOSED.  We ran it on our own website and posted on the school’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.  No one was going to be uninformed. 

Staying up just long enough to witness the first announcements on our school scrolling across the TV screens, I headed upstairs, flipped off the switch on my alarm clock, and went to bed.  I slept like a baby.

4:25 a.m.  I was still deep in slumber.  Unbeknownst to me, the public school district in which my school resides made their decision.  The schools were closing.  Their preferred choice of communication? Reverse robo-call.  Phones rang off the hook in the homes of every family in the district.  Thousands of people awoke to a recorded message.  Most didn’t go back to sleep. All day long social media buzzed with the grumblings of a decision mismanaged.

I slept on.  I eventually woke up naturally and well-rested at 7:30 a.m., the time I’m usually arriving at school.  I looked out the window at the 15” of snow already on the ground and the gorgeous thick flakes still falling.  Steph made a delicious cup of morning coffee while I began to crack the eggs for breakfast.  My thoughts turned to the snow shovel leaning against the garage wall and how I should start putting it to good use.  No, I thought to myself, the shoveling can wait.  I’ve got all day.

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