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Orono Superintendent: Student Safety Drives Decision ‘Weather’ to Close

When a winter storm occurs overnight, the process of deciding whether to delay or close school begins around 4 a.m.

By Dr. Karen Orcutt
Superintendent of Orono Public Schools

Our recent record-setting snowfall tells us that the winter season of the 2012-13 school year has arrived. With inclement weather almost always come questions about the school district’s procedures regarding “snow days.” This column is intended to help you gain a better understanding of how we arrive at those decisions.

The decision to shorten a school day, to close school entirely or to remain open is always based on safety. Saving money or past practice are not considerations, as some people may believe.

When a winter storm occurs overnight, the process of deciding whether to delay or close school begins around 4 a.m. First Student Transportation, the company that provides our bus service, works with the four terminals that it operates near the district. The supervisor of each terminal evaluates weather conditions and suggests action plans. Each has a designated snow route, which is actually driven, to ascertain conditions and evaluate safety. 

At the same time, the administrative team that works with First Student is evaluating weather conditions and talking to surrounding school districts to ensure we have not overlooked anything.

We discuss a number of factors, but the primary consideration is what road conditions will be like when bus drivers begin their first routes at 6:20 a.m. Will they be able to complete their routes safely and within a reasonable amount of time? As you might guess, it’s hard to determine road conditions and traffic delays if it is still snowing.

One should never say “never,” but we try very hard not to delay the start of school.  It is simply too disruptive to families.

If a decision to delay the start of school or to close school is made, this sets in motion a series of notifications. We have tried to make it as easy as possible for families to learn about them.

This year, we have contracted with a new parent notification service, SchoolMessenger. We are able to provide better service at a reduced cost to the district. For example, with weather-related closings, our new system will call every telephone number we have on file for a family plus send alerts to every e-mail address we have on file. We did not have this option with our previous service.

Once we send a message, it is delivered to everyone in a matter of minutes. This service is free for families, and requires no action on the part of parents or guardians other than to keep contact information updated through SchoolView.

• If school is delayed or closed, a special message will appear on the district homepage (www.orono.k12.mn.us).  It will always be highly-visible on the homepage; you will not need to search for it.

• You can listen for announcements on WCCO-AM (830) and all local television stations: KARE (11), KMSP or Fox (9), KSTP (5) and WCCO (4). Lake Minnetonka Patch will also post delay and closure announcements.

Every effort is made to get these announcements on the air as soon as possible.

Any weather-related closing or delayed start will involve all of our schools and programs, not just certain locations. In addition, when schools are closed, it means there is no O.K. KIDS child care. Typically, there are also no athletic or cocurricular activities or Community Education classes.

We very rarely, and only under extremely hazardous conditions, excuse students early when a winter storm begins during the school day. This is even more disruptive to families than delayed starts. In such a case, we would dismiss senior high and middle school students first and then the intermediate and elementary schools.

Cold weather presents another challenge. Many years back, during a bout of severely cold temperatures, the governor made the decision to close for us. Cold weather presents concerns, but nothing that rises to the level of concern created by a storm. Sometimes buses don’t start but, if and when they do, safe transportation can almost be guaranteed.

There is another reason we very rarely close for cold weather: we believe remaining open is the safest thing we can do for students. Many parents do not have the option of keeping their children at home or face obstacles when schools are closed that could put their children at greater risk.

When all is said and done, it is always your decision to keep your child out of school if you feel it is too stormy or cold. Just be sure to let the school know so that the staff knows that he/she is safe.

We appreciate your patience and understanding. Please know that we always base our decisions on the best interests of our students.

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