November 29, 2023
from Dr. Bill Hudson, head of school
Of all the decisions I must make as head of school, there is one that I dread the most: calling a snow day. As a child, nothing was more magical than awakening to heavy snowfall, racing to the TV, and anxiously awaiting the name of my school to scroll across the bottom of the screen. While I still consider a snow day magical, deciding to close school is difficult and complicated. Someone once told me that if a leader tries to make everyone happy, they are not doing their job. This is particularly true in making weather-related decisions. Inevitably, someone is not going to be happy.
The decision to cancel school for an inclement weather-related event (which could be snow, ice, or sub-zero temperatures) is made by the head of school in consultation with the administrative team. The most important criterion is the safety of our community, which has 580 students and more than 100 employees who live in 82 different zip codes in six counties throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The second criterion is to honor in-person learning. The number of school days is based on our mission and values, on what we believe best supports student learning, and on the needs of our community. Snow days are an interruption, and we would prefer not to have any interruptions.
Whenever possible, my goal is to decide by 6 AM at the latest. If a snow day is called, it is communicated by text, phone, email, the school’s website, and local television stations. Because MPA draws from such a large geographic area, it is not uncommon for the weather to vary, sometimes significantly. School closing or delay decisions are based on a number of factors:
- Weather forecast
- Timing of the event (morning or afternoon drive time)
- Road conditions (MDOT traffic cams)
- Feedback from First Student (our bus company), District 622, and peer schools
- Feedback from Admin Team members (who live in areas across the metro)
- Areas affected (we draw students from 82 zip codes)
- Building conditions
- Parking lot conditions
This information is valuable but does not, in itself, affect the decision. Ultimately, the decision is only as good as the information available at the time. Inclement weather is, by definition, out of the ordinary, making it difficult to predict, thus subjecting decisions to considerable scrutiny.
To make decisions regarding the timing of opening and closing school, I must consider information on current conditions and the timing of expected weather. Schools operate at specific times of the day, but inclement weather can begin, end, or change at any time. For example, consider the implications of a 5-7 inch snowfall that arrives at one of the following four different times of the day:
- An evening snow that concludes during the late-night hours provides ample overnight time for snow removal and salting on highways and side streets.
- Snow in the early morning hours, predicted to end after 10 AM, may close school because it would not be possible to clear roads in time for school to open.
- Snow forecasted to begin at “drive time” is a situation where it may be necessary to announce a delayed opening. Historically, MPA has not exercised this option. As a PreK-12 school, there are multiple challenges to a late start, such as three different schedules and crossover teachers. That said, a late start remains an option.
- If the same snowfall is predicted to begin after 12 PM, a reasonable decision is to open school on time, monitor the weather, and dismiss early if necessary.
Extremely low temperatures and wind chill factors are another factor to consider.
Low temperatures and wind chill are generally overcome by expecting and trusting that parents dress their children appropriately. As with all weather conditions, I monitor the ambient temperature and the status of wind chill watches, advisories, and warnings from the National Weather Service. The primary threshold for cold weather to become an operational consideration for MPA is when the National Weather Service issues a Warning. Our rule of thumb to consider closing school is -20 degrees and a windchill of -35 degrees or lower.
When school is closed for inclement weather, it is our practice to consider it an opportunity to rest, read a good book, help around the house, or play outdoors. There will be no virtual learning or additional assignments. Students are still expected to complete homework or project work that has already been assigned.
However, if it is a multi-day event, the second consecutive day will be a virtual learning day, depending on the division and grade level. Classes may be held synchronously, or assignments may be posted on Schoology.
- Lower School: Lower School teachers will provide optional activities via their Schoology pages for students to access if they are able and wish to do so. We encourage Lower School students to take this opportunity to read a good book, help around the house, and play outside in the snow!
- Middle School: Teachers, at their discretion, may provide virtual learning assignments or opportunities for students in grades six through eight via their Schoology pages. Students in grade five may visit their Schoology pages, if they are able, for some optional activities. Students in grades six through eight should check Schoology by 8 AM for the plan for the day.
- Upper School: Students can expect to find a clear plan for each class of their day in Schoology by 8 AM on the second day of a winter inclement weather event and by 8 AM on each subsequent day. Classes may be held synchronously or asynchronously, as determined by the teacher. Upper School study halls will not meet while off campus.
Whether or not the decision was “right” is not known until after the inclement weather event. Ultimately, I must make the best possible decision using current conditions and predictions. When the forecasts are accurate, the decision is generally deemed to be a good one. When the forecast is inaccurate, the decision will invariably be second-guessed. Using multiple sources of information, including first-hand observation, helps provide the information required to make an informed decision. When in doubt, please know I will always err on the side of student safety.
Growing up in Michigan and living in the Upper Peninsula, I love winter. For me, the more snow, the better! This year, however, is expected to be an El Nino winter, with warmer temperatures and less snow. If that is the case, a snow day does not seem likely. As Minnesotans, though, we know to expect the unexpected!