Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making the Call: How a snow day becomes a Snow Day

Somewhere in the clouds last Tuesday night, high above the houses and apartments in which little girls and boys slept, small changes in the atmosphere caused:

“...the greatest weather surprise in the last 10 to 20 years,” according to meteorologists at one local TV station.

This unexpected first wave of Wednesday's snowstorm came to my neighborhood around 6:30 a.m., early enough for six cars to slide off a road into a ditch and for a school bus to lose traction on a hill and remain stranded. But the storm arrived late enough in the morning routine for the absence of something just as significant: a snow day.

There was snow—buckets, inches, gobs of it; but there was not, a Snow Day.

“Timing is everything,” a local police chief told me when I asked him how an official snow day, or cancellation of school, is declared.

Unless the snowstorm hits early in the afternoon or evening, it’s a waiting game.


1:00 a.m.

2:00 a.m.

3:00 a.m.

4:00 a.m.

Some of us, awake for various reasons, peek out the window at this hour to see if a dusting has spread across the roads, but most people are sleeping.

Not so, of course, if declaring a snow day is part of your job.

“The process begins around 4:00 a.m.,” the website for the Princeton Regional Schools states. It’s around that time that administrators down the road in Hopewell Valley call the police headquarters.

The dispatcher checks in with officers in patrol cars.

How are the roads?

Whatever they report is passed back to the superintendent, who then considers the conditions in surrounding areas and the ability of teachers and staff to get to work on time, too.

By 5:30 a.m., a decision must be made.

Once it is, dispatchers at a bus company hear from the transportation coordinator.

“We get a phone call...a human calls us.”

The dispatcher then calls her drivers, one at a time---relating the news if there’s a delay or cancellation.

If there is, said one administrator at an independent school, the director of communication updates the school's website. Then, the administrator puts out a message through Call One that is automatically sent to parents and staff.

After that, he calls the TV and radio stations.

"I have a code I punch in.”


“Otherwise you’d have students calling the local TV station and saying school is canceled.”

When snow accumulates at night and it is clear school will be called off the following day, he's got another way to outmaneuver the strategies of students sniffing out a snow day: the announcement is never made before 10:00 p.m..

“We wait until after study hall...we learned that the hard way.”

Back to the early morning hours, administrators at smaller independent or nursery schools follow the lead of the districts they are a part of.

“I watch the local access channel,” the director of one told me, lamenting the Muzak. In the dark morning hours, waiting for reports from other schools and districts, she just hopes the drone of early morning television doesn’t put her to sleep. She somehow stays awake, and then sends messages for parents and staff through an automated service called Blackboard Connect.

Many years ago, on winter days in Maryland, my brother and I would sit by a transistor radio hoping to hear the announcement that Montgomery County schools would be closed. If they were, our morning would include the luxury of eggs and toast, reruns of "I Love Lucy", sled runs down the “hill” in our backyard, and a bit of Swiss Miss hot chocolate before I'd eventually set off to fashion another regrettable hair cut for my Cabbage Patch doll.

I had no idea what went into the decision of determining a snow day, and no sense of the work it might mean for the parents whose schedules were suddenly altered.

5 loads of laundry, 1 batch of cookies, 2 loads of dishes, 1 homemade pizza, 2 trips outside, 1 snow fort, 1 sled trail, 1 awesome batch of sloppy joes...

Banana bread, play dough, a movie, breaking up a squabble between siblings.....

These were a few of the things I heard from moms who, because of Thursday's snow day, had gotten the day "off"  from work.

The next time I get a message announcing a snow day, I'll probably think a bit about the people who spent the lonely hours between 4:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. determining that call.

"On days like that," the assistant to one superintendent I spoke with said, when I asked her if her boss ever looked tired after a night monitoring the weather, "he comes in a bit bleary-eyed."

The other side of this story is what might happen if there are several more snow days this winter. As a story in NJ.COM reported, some districts have used up so many, they may have to make up the days on "school breaks, such as Presidents Day weekend and spring recess. After that, there’s school on the weekends." Announcing that decision to constituents sounds almost as painful as listening to Muzak at 4:30 a.m..


Tim Morrissey said...

According to our local (Madison) prognosticators, you'll be having another Snow Day mid-week.

My daughter says her Wisconsin-honed winter driving skills have stood her in good stead in the NYC metro this winter.

Fran said...

this is precisely something i could easily find myself thinking about in the middle of the night and following through with understanding, as well. your curiosity is such fun to read about and to some degree, to share!