When waves of winter weather events turned a recent weekend into a five-day mini-break, parents and students of Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) took to social media questioning how and why decisions on school closings are made.
What are the main criteria considered? Snow accumulation? Icy road conditions? Bitter cold temperatures? Dangerous wind levels?
What scenarios are played out to guide those decisions? Buses sliding off the road or otherwise being involved in crashes? Children walking or waiting for buses in dangerously cold conditions? Parents or, even worse, young inexperienced drivers navigating slippery roads?
According to Wayde Byard, public information officer for LCPS, all of those factors and scenarios factor into the decisions. In the end, however, he said it all boils down to one word.
“Safety,” Byard wrote in response to questions by the Loudoun Tribune.
“We look at forecasts, what is actually falling from the sky and what is on the ground. We have crews out at 2 a.m. checking the roads in various part of the county.”
“Again, safety is the only concern.”
One element given top consideration are students who walk to school.
“Approximately 26,000 are designated walkers, though many of these are driven to school by parents. The number of parents driving students to school increases during inclement weather as many parents opt to drive students rather than have them walk in snow, ice, cold, etc.”
Byard said accounting for students who drive themselves is taken into consideration as part of the overall picture.
“Again, the safety of all students and staff members must be considered when making a closure decision,” he said. “Teen drivers do, typically, have less experience driving in inclement weather conditions.”
Making decisions on school closings is complicated by the very fact that weather predictions are never 100 percent accurate and from the time a decision is made, several hours will pass and conditions can easily change. If a decision is made to have school in session, and conditions worsen over the course of the next few hours, the logistics for the school and parents can cause problems themselves.
Loudoun County also has weather variations within its boundaries.
“Remember, Loudoun is two separate forecast zones as determined by the National Weather Service,” Byard wrote. “Storms happen in one part of the county that don’t affect the other.”
Recently, high winds were a major factor in school closings and negative comments on social media demonstrated very little understanding for just how dangerous high winds can be.
For example, on January 4th, with temperatures below 20 degrees, Leesburg Airport reported constant high winds with gusts of over 30 mph. For a normal adult, based on the Beaufort wind force scale, wind speeds of 39–46 mph may allow an adult to walk or stand, but progress on foot will be seriously impeded. For elementary kids and teens attempting to navigate to school with high wind gusts, along with books and backpacks can be daunting. Couple this with below-freezing winds and there is a serious safety factor which lead to school closures.
Byard said dozens of people and a variety of assets are involved in the daily weather-related decisions.
“LCPS support services staff, transportation and facilities employees, the National Weather Service, four subscription weather services, the superintendent, Virginia State Police, Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Department of Transportation (all have input),” Byard said.
A large portion of LCPS students ride buses, so the strengths and limitations inherent in that fact are a big consideration.
“55,000 are eligible (to ride buses),” Byard said. “On most days, 39,000 to 43,000 use this service.”
He said buses can generally make it through small to moderate amounts of snow, but other factors can impact a bus driver’s ability to complete the route.
“The buses are equipped with chains that drop from the body and will get them over most terrain,” Byard said. “The problem may be in snow removal, where bus stops and roads are not clear. We also deal with many single-lane road that make it impossible for buses to turn around in inclement weather.”
Byard said frigid wind chills can create dangerous conditions for someone walking or simply waiting for a bus. He said the district can’t accurately estimate how long students may have to wait for their buses to arrive.
“We have no formal calculation for this,” he said. “Times may vary with the length of the bus run, the number of students being picked up and the distance between bus stops. The average length of a bus ride is 23 minutes.”
A factor not often considered by the general public is the amount of time school staff spends outdoors as part of the school-day process.
“Our teachers, teacher assistants and administrators spend a great deal of time in the elements to ensure the safety of our students,” he said. “The safety of these employees must, of course, be a consideration.”
While parents may not always agree with school-closing decisions, Byard said the district works hard to take all factors into account and to make sure no students or staff are put in jeopardy because of inclement weather.
“I want parents to know that all decisions to close or delay school are made thoughtfully with the safety of our students and staff in mind,” he said. “We realize that delays and closures are an inconvenience to families, but safety always supersedes inconvenience.”
Byard said residents can learn more about the process and how weather-related decisions are made by watching a video at Vimeo.com/198111711