Several factors go into making school snow day decision

January 18, 2024

Several factors go into making school snow day decision

West Shore School News is a presentation of West Shore Educational Service District in partnership with Mason County Press.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

Over the past week, parents, students, and school staff have experienced the seasonal northern Michigan tradition of school closings. The first school closing of the season took place last Wednesday, Jan. 10 when all schools in Mason and Oceana counties shut down due to weather. Since then, there have been three other days when schools have closed due to weather.

Making the decision to close an entire school district is something that school administrators do not take lightly. It involves a lot of communication, first hand observations of the weather, following the weather forecasts, and some guess work.

Many of the area school superintendents and transportation directors begin traveling the roads either the night before or early in the morning to determine the weather conditions.

“There’s a lot of communications that happens in general between all the superintendents within the West Shore ESD (Educational Service District) through a text thread,” said Mark Platt, superintendent of Hart Public Schools. Those schools involved in the communications exchange include West Shore ESD, Hart Public Schools, Walkerville Public Schools, Shelby Public Schools, Pentwater Public Schools, Baldwin Community School, Mason County Eastern Public Schools, Mason County Central Public Schools, and Ludington Area School District.

“Locally, here in Oceana County, there’s a separate text thread that we use because the ESD covers 2,000 square miles,” Platt said. “What might be a situation for us may not be the same situation for Baldwin, for example, due to the proximity to the lakeshore.”

Winter mornings for most area superintendents typically begins about 4:30 a.m. Mason County Central Superintendent Jeff Mount said his goal is to make an early morning decision about school closing by 5 a.m.

“I leave my house and start driving around the countryside by 4:30 in the morning,” Mount said. “Within a few minutes, I am on the phone with Paul Shoup (superintendent of Mason County Eastern).” Mount lives in Victory Township while Shoup lives in Custer Township. “Eastern and Central will almost always be lockstep in our decision because we share so much of the same territory,” Mount said. “Paul monitors the eastern side of the county while I monitor the northwest. Ludington looks at the southwest part of the county.”

Mount said he and Shoup also will discuss the decision with Kyle Corlett, superintendent of Ludington Area School District, along with the transportation directors for MCC, LASD and the ESD.

“Sometimes Ludington will make a different decision than Central and Eastern mostly because its district is in closer proximity to the lakeshore,” Mount said. “That’s completely understandable. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered. Take last Friday, for example. Dr. Corlett made the decision to be open for a half a day and shut down in the afternoon. All weather forecasts called for snow to begin at 1 p.m. I believe he made the right call. We made a different decision because our district covers a much larger geographical area, and if the weather had started sooner, we could have had a big mess. Our buses travel all the way into Lake County. It ended up that the snow didn’t even hit until evening, but there’s no way to have known that would have been the case. He certainly made the right choice and so did I. At the end of the day, it’s all about keeping our students and staff safe.”

Mount said MCC’s practice is to avoid half day snow days.

“Our parents have told us that they don’t like half days, so we really try to avoid them as much as possible,” Mount said. “Ludington, however, already has several half days worked into its schedule already and the parents are acclimated to that schedule. I respect that.”

In Oceana County, the process is similar. Platt said he will monitor the western portion of the county while Shelby Public Schools Superintendent Mark Olmstead monitors the southern portion of the county, and Joe Conkle, superintendent of Walkerville Public Schools checks the conditions in the east. They also are in touch with Scott Karaptian, superintendent of Pentwater Public Schools.

“It’s quite the process and something we take very serious,” Platt said. “I tend to be the first one to call it once we’ve entered into the conversation and often make the decision the night before. I want to make sure that parents have enough time to make the proper arrangements for childcare. When it’s pretty obvious that the weather and roads won’t be better by morning, I prefer to make the decision by 8 p.m. I don’t think it’s fair to make parents wait until later in the evening.”

Platt said he caught some ribbing for the decision to wait until Wednesday morning.

“I have to be honest about this. I never wait. But, by 7 p.m. Tuesday night, the text chain chatter stopped. So, I figured everyone was going to wait until morning and monitor how things went overnight. I went to bed at 8 p.m. and set my alarm for 4 a.m. When I woke up, I saw that just after 8, Shelby and Pentwater, and all of Mason County, decided to shut down. Of course, I got the word out right away that Hart was closed.”

This is one of the things that our communities don’t necessarily see, but it is an example of how closely all the schools in our ESD work together,” Mount said. “We have a job to educate children and we all do it well. We also have a job to keep those children safe when they are in our care and we will make sure that

As a general rule, schools such as Gateway to Success Academy, Ludington Area Catholic School and Covenant Christian School follow suit with the public school districts. Typically, when MCC closes, Covenant will close because it’s within MCC’s district. LAC and G2S will close when LASD closes (while G2S is in MCC’s district, several of its students come of the Ludington area).

In Michigan public school districts are allowed six snow days per school year. The districts then have to make up the days, typically by extending the school year in June. They also can apply for a waiver for three additional days.

To date, all the schools, except Walkerville, have used four snow days; Walkerville has used three.

“You can’t just apply for the other three,” Platt said. “You can’t just apply for them and then say you have nine. But, the state is usually pretty good about approving the extra days.”

Platt and Mount both said they are concerned about next week’s forecast, which calls for above-freezing temperatures and rain.

“We have a lot of country roads out that will still be snow covered,” Platt said. “You mix that with rain and you get a real mess. But, that all might change.”

Mount said relying on forecasts is part of the process, but it’s often a gamble.

“Meteorology is not a perfect science, the same thing with closing schools,” Mount said. “We are obligated to educate our community’s children for 180 days of the year and we will do it the safest way possible.”

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