Winter storms dampen school attendance
When area children see snowflakes fall from the sky, their thoughts turn to hopes that school will be cancelled.
When area school officials see snow, they prepare to make a decision that rests entirely on safety for their students.
Last week, officials from the Basehor-Linwood and Bonner Springs school districts cancelled classes for four and three days, respectively, because of the weather and conditions of area roads. But what goes into making those decisions?
"The very first thing is, if the buses can't run, we don't have school," said Bonner Springs Superintendent Robert Van Maren.
On nights snow or ice is forecasted, Van Maren said, he and USD 204 Director of Transportation Don Harding will get up around 3 a.m. to see if there is any ice or snow on the ground, then they'll call each other.
"Don will drive the bus routes and I'll stay up and watch The Weather Channel," Van Maren said. "At 5 a.m. I'll turn to local news and see if anyone around us is closing. Don will give me a final report between 5-5:30 a.m. so we can get it (a cancellation) on by 6 a.m."
Van Maren added that the district also takes part in a conference call among all of the major districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area, including Kansas City, Mo., Kansas City, Kan., Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe.
"Those superintendents get on the phone between 5-5:30 a.m. and they generally take a look at all of the conditions in the area. If it's a big storm that's affecting everybody, they kind of make a decision together," Van Maren said.
Van Maren also talks to other Wyandotte County superintendents to discuss the situation at hand.
"We get together (with KCK, Piper and Turner) and we all talk," he said. "There are a couple of other things thrown into the mix in Wyandotte County since we have special education kids going to KCK and some gong to AVTS (Area Vocational Technical School), and there are a few kids from KCK who attend our special ed program, and we take that into consideration.
"One thing that helps us is if it's a city-wide storm and others are closing, our conditions are probably worse. If the others can't get around some of their city streets, then we are more than justified in saying that we'll close.
Primarily, if it's icy here and the buses can't run, we close. There have been times when (others) have been open and we've been closed and (vice-versa), but most of the time it depends on transportation."
In the Basehor-Linwood school district, things are similar.
"If there is threatening weather, we begin monitoring the forecast the evening before and through the night," said Cal Cormack, interim superintendent. "Around 4 a.m., maybe before that, we have our maintenance supervisor (Dick Drennon) out driving the roads to assess if buses can safely travel the roads. If he thinks they're not safe, he calls me (or Director of Operations Don Swartz, if Cormack is out of town) and recommends that we call off school. It would be very unusual if we didn't concur with that.
"If someone out there is driving the roads saying it isn't going to be safe to put a bus on the roads, we're not going to ignore that information. Then, we immediately call radio and television stations and report that we're going to be closed."
Cormack said he also confers with the district's bussing coordinator. He said others would go out to different parts of the district, to get a view of the entire area.
"We're large enough where you can get bad weather in one area and be perfectly clear in another. We try to get as much information as possible and then make a decision as early as possible. In all likelihood, we will have contacted the radio and television stations by 5 a.m."
Both districts have built in enough hours in the school calendar that through Monday, neither would have to make up any missed time. But another major storm or two could change all of that.
"We have the equivalent of 7-1/2 days and we've lost four already. That puts us into some jeopardy," Cormack said. "It's something we have thought about.
"I think we can go approximately four and a half (more) days without having to make up any time," Van Maren said.
Both men did say instead of lengthening the school year, they would rather make up any lost time by adding minutes to the end of some school days.
"If we get two days behind, instead of adding days to the end of the year, I'd like to add 10 minutes to the end of the day," Van Maren said. "In the state of Kansas they let you make up those minutes individually. It's easier because there are vacations planned and finals and graduations at certain times. It's generally easier to add time."
"I think most of us would prefer to lengthen the school day in order to make up the difference, as opposed to adding days," Cormack said. "Once you start doing that, your disrupting work schedules, vacations, all kinds of things. If at all possible, we would add minutes to the school day to make up the time. If that weren't possible, we would probably shorten the spring break before lengthening the school year."
Regardless of the decisions that are made, safety of the students is the primary concern.
"It's difficult. You tell parents you made the best decision at the time and your primary concern is student safety," Van Maren said. "I can't think of any factor other than safety that we really take into account," Cormack said. "There wouldn't be another reason for us to decide to close school.
"If we think there's a chance, we're not going to take the chance. We're not going to satisfy everyone, but we're going to do what we believe is in the best interest for the kids.