Snow days are complicated. This is how Southern Tier superintendents make the call

Canisteo-Greenwood School Superintendent Thomas Crook calls it one of the most exacting aspects of his job.

The task? Declaring a snow day when heavy snow, slick ice or other hazardous winter weather conditions impact or are forecast to hit the sprawling Steuben County public school district that stretches over 100 square miles and multiple towns.

“I hope people understand that it’s a stressful decision to make. Sometimes it’s easy but most of the time it’s not,” Crook said.

Clifford R. Kasson, superintendent of Vestal Central School District, agrees the stakes are high, noting, “You always value education, but you value the safety of everyone. You always make a decision based on that. Safety first.”

Calling a snow day: How superintendents make the decision

How do superintendents make the decision to cancel school for the day?

Crook, Kasson and other Southern Tier school chiefs say the key is following a process that focuses on forecasts, weather trends, close consultations with neighboring districts, first-hand reports from municipal highway crews working on the roads, along with school transportation departments and facility teams.

“Superintendents don’t just flip a coin on calling a snow day,” Horseheads Central School Superintendent Dr. Thomas J. Douglas said. “There is a lot of things that go into behind the scenes that people may not understand.”

Vestal's district in Broome County encompasses 56 square miles and includes a K-12 enrollment of roughly 3,500 students. Like Canisteo-Greenwood, most Vestal students get to and from school by bus or by parents and guardians driving and dropping them off, Kasson said.

Snow covers the roof of a Seton Catholic High School bus Jan. 25, 2023.
Snow covers the roof of a Seton Catholic High School bus Jan. 25, 2023.

With large staffs of employees also driving to the schools, superintendents face this basic question: “Are those roads safe enough for that to happen? You don’t want to be the person who says, ‘Yeah I think they are safe' and an accident happens," Kasson said.

While significant snowfall totals may grab the headlines, superintendents are sometimes more wary of flash freezes and icy roads that come without warning and travel is not the only consideration schools must account for.

The Horseheads district in Chemung County includes seven buildings and six campuses. All have parking lots, sidewalks and entryways where snow and ice have to be cleared for classes to be held safely. That type of work sometimes has to start as early as 1 a.m. to be accomplished, Douglas said.

Amanda Reeves of Apalachin sleds with her son Aiden at Hickories Park in Owego on Monday, February 1, 2021, as a winter storm cancelled school for many area school districts.
Amanda Reeves of Apalachin sleds with her son Aiden at Hickories Park in Owego on Monday, February 1, 2021, as a winter storm cancelled school for many area school districts.

School calendars account for potential snow days

The New York State Education Department requires schools to hold 180 teaching days during the year. Districts have the option of canceling in-school classes and holding remote sessions, but all the districts queried are planning for snow days as they have always been known.

“There is nothing better than traditional snow days, right? It’s an unexpected day off and you have to let kids be kids,” Crook said.

Like many districts, Canisteo-Greenwood builds three to five snow days into the school calendar each year. Same thing for the Wellsville Central School district in Allegany County, the Vestal and Horseheads school districts.

The decision to cancel school or call for a one- or two-hour delay, they said, has to be made by 6 a.m., before the buses get going.

When weather might threaten the school day or an upcoming day, superintendents will take part in a stream of communication, gathering information and asking questions via texts, phone calls, emails and other messaging systems. The communication may start as early as 4 a.m.

Superintendents and transportation chiefs get to know the geography and terrains of their districts as well, driving around to potential trouble spots on inclement mornings.

"Conditions in the Village of Wellsville are often very different than the hills in Alma," said Wellsville Central School Superintendent Dave Foster.

School district officials develop close relationships with highway departments and other municipal road crews. Most hold a coordination meeting prior to the winter season.

Crook's text chain on potential snow days includes about a dozen highway and transportation department contacts.

Scenes from December 2020 snowfall in the Southern Tier.
Scenes from December 2020 snowfall in the Southern Tier.

In Horseheads, Douglas stays up-to-date on the school's close neighbors Elmira, Elmira Heights and Corning. He said it's important to know the conditions in those communities and what those districts plan to do.

Kasson gets a notification whenever a district in Broome-Tioga BOCES is closing or has a delay.

Kasson said the Vestal Highway Department is an indispensable partner, with a highway department foreman working early morning hours, Sunday through Thursday night, during the school year.

That allows the school district to reach out at anytime and ask, “How are the roads doing in Vestal? We get determination from them directly of what the road condition is," Kasson said.

Snow day calls are not an exact science

When a superintendent pulls the plug on a school day each district communicates the news through an automated delivery system that includes texts, phone messages, emails and social media posts.

Superintendents keep in mind that canceling school impacts the schedule of district families and timely notifications are important, but they prefer to get the most up-to-date information before making the call.

"The most challenging are weather events, which develop in the early morning," Foster said. "I try to give families as much warning as possible because we appreciate the difficulty late announcements can cause for child care."

If a severe winter storm is in the forecast, superintendents keep a close watch on weather developments in the days before the event and they also start fielding questions about closures from school staff, parents and especially students.

Douglas said, “It’s not uncommon that superintendents get asked, if they are out in their buildings with students, 'Hey, are we having a snow day tomorrow or the next day?’”

Crook said the easy calls are appreciated, but they are not always possible.

“I love it when the forecaster says it’s going to dump (several) feet of snow overnight and it does. Those are the easy decisions. (But) sometimes you’re going to be wrong," Crook said.

Douglas knows a lot of people are watching when superintendents weigh the decision to call a snow day or not.

“We try to make the right call but every now and then there is going to be a call that people disagree with,” he said. “Health and safety is number one for every superintendent no matter what.”

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This article originally appeared on Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin: Will there be a snow day? How these NY schools make the call