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Inside the Mind of a School Superintendent the Night Before a Big Snow Storm

5 minute read

Dr. Joseph Roy was the principal of my high school. He also happens to be my dad. This meant that in addition to being unable to avoid him in the hallways or in the cafeteria or even at prom, friends and strangers alike flocked to me on the evening before a possible snow day to see if I knew anything about school closures. I was never more popular than dark nights before Nor’easters blustered in, everyone frantically sending me messages over AOL Instant Messenger asking if the district superintendent had called my dad yet about the weather.

Back then, my dad never actually made the decision to cancel school when the weather got bad. He just relayed whatever decision the superintendent had made to the students and staff at the high school he ran. Now, as the superintendent of Bethlehem Area School District, a large public school system in Pennsylvania, he’s tasked with making the severe weather closure decision for all 22 schools under his purview. And it’s certainly not an easy one.

How he goes about making the decision

Beginning a day or two before a major storm is predicted, my dad starts to study 6 or 7 different weather models to figure out exactly what he’s dealing with. He looks at them throughout the day for several indicators: inches of snow, how cold it’s going to be, how likely it is the roads will be iced over and the timing of the storm.

“A big piece of it is the timing,” he says. “This winter has been tough because it’s been a lot of daytime snow. If you know it’s going to snow a few inches throughout the school day, I’m more likely to cancel it. Buses don’t do well in snow, so I monitor the amount predicted, the fall and the timing.”

He also has to pay attention to the snow’s effect on narrow city streets, and whether there’s enough time to get all of the parking lots and sidewalks of the 22 schools cleared in time for opening. Just plowing those can take around six hours, so frequently crews paid overtime come in around 2 a.m. after a big storm to at least get schools open in time for a 2-hour delay.

He doesn’t make the decision alone, though: superintendents throughout Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley have an email chain that they use to talk to each other about what decisions they’re considering making.

“Every morning when there are issues there’s an email group of superintendents and the emails will start going: ‘What are you thinking? What’s the weather?'” he says. Most of the time 10 or 12 school districts that make up the Lehigh Valley generally do the same thing.

The risk of making the wrong decision

Often times calling a snow day is a catch-22. “Let’s say we have school and the weather gets horrible and then you’re sending buses home and kids are walking home in dangerous conditions–that’s not good,” he says. “On the other hand, if you make decisions to close or even have a 2-hour delay too lightly and too quickly, you really impact families because not everyone has child care. Some parents can’t go to work when we close and then they can get in trouble with their jobs. So I feel the stress of knowing the impact on families.”

Plus, the more snow days, the more school days you have to make up to meet the 180 required by the state of Pennsylvania. This year, kids will be going into school on President’s Day, and they no longer have the Thursday before or Monday after Easter off.

The personal impact

There’s also the personal toll having such a major responsibility can take.

On bad weather days, my dad gets up at 3:30 a.m. to start monitoring the weather. He also insists on checking the roads himself, so he drives from about 3:45 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. to make sure the roads are clear, then makes his decision by 5 a.m. Coupled with after-work meetings, this can create a grueling 19+ hour work day, and when snow occurs as frequently as it has this winter, it adds up.

Plus, he said, the whole process “wakes my wife up. And sometimes I’m creeping down the stairs at 4am and Maddie [my 3-year-old sister] will be like, ‘Daddy?'”

“It’s a lonely decision,” my dad says. “Because if you get it wrong one way or the other you’re going to get huge abuse.” His first year as superintendent he stayed open during a snowy day when all the districts around him closed, and he got close to 100 emails and phone calls telling him he was an idiot.

Within seconds, the retweets start

My dad uses Twitter to push out the message about school closings. The very first call he makes upon reaching a decision is to the IT director, who sets off a robocall that calls families and employees in the district. Then he posts a message to Twitter with the news. He’s found it’s a great way to interact with kids and keep the community up to date on district news.

“Within seconds of me putting out we’re closed or delayed, the retweets start. I started a Twitter account with the notion of communicating with the community and parents, but it’s also a huge tool to build relationships and communicate with students. The downside is sometimes there will be students who will be a little demanding like, ‘Why aren’t you calling it off?’ but I just block them.”

“I blocked a couple today,” he says.

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