To close or not to close school? That is the decision

Feb 03 2023

To close or not to close school? That is the decision

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
-GK Chesterton

Throughout Monday afternoon and evening, students and parents alike asked the same question: “Are we going to have school tomorrow?” Students bolstered their pleas by explaining that “every other school is closed tomorrow, why aren’t we?” I explained that as of 5:00 PM on Monday, actually, there were few schools in San Antonio that were closed, but my clarifications fell on deaf ears. As we all know now and much to students’ delight, Keystone did join the other schools in not holding school on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the inclement weather.

KSAT screen grab

I also described to students on Monday evening a fun tradition my family learned in New Mexico regarding snow days. If the weather looks like it could lead to school cancellations, students should go to bed with their pajamas on backwards and put a spoon under their pillow. I heard this week that some students actually placed spoons under their pillows, and lo and behold, school was called off. For parents, this may provide a good opportunity to explain the difference between correlation and causation.

So, what goes into the decision of whether to hold school or not? This is one of the responsibilities of heads of independent schools across the country, and very often, it can literally keep us up at night. I recall early in my career as a school head putting on snow boots and slogging through the snow-covered streets at 4:00 AM in St. Louis to see if calling off school was really necessary. In that city, each school made its own decision on whether to remain open, and you were pretty much on your own and just hoping and praying that the choice you made was correct. For many years, the school I headed had a reputation for “never” closing for a snow day, until one day someone explained that maybe it’s not such a great idea to be the only school still open when the streets are icy or impassable.

Deciding whether to cancel classes for a school in Albuquerque was much easier but at times more frustrating. All the schools followed the decisions of Albuquerque Public School (APS), so if they called off, then that was it and we closed. I recall being incredulous one morning as I arrived at school to learn that APS had just canceled all classes, but there was no precipitation on the ground in our part of town. Truth be told, I appreciated someone else shouldering the responsibility and making the decision-as long as in my mind it was the right one.

In San Antonio, each independent school in San Antonio decides whether or not to hold school. Fortunately, there is greater collegiality and more communication among heads of school in this town than I have seen anywhere else on this issue and other topics. We have a texting group, and we talk to each other on a variety of subjects including inclement weather days. The camaraderie among heads in the Alamo City stands out, and I am incredibly grateful for the way we have worked together through COVID, the snowpocalypse a couple of years ago, and other issues that have arisen. We respect each other and start with the understanding that we all want what’s best for students and families.

At Keystone, our process begins when the forecasts start predicting bad weather and potentially dangerous driving conditions. Immediately, administrators at Keystone start planning for a variety of contingencies. We also take into account that we’re one of the few schools with children ranging in age from 3 years old to seniors in high school, and what we choose to do will affect families differently. For example, parents of younger children may have difficulty finding childcare on short notice; parents of high schoolers may worry about the safety of their older children who are new drivers.

Keystone families live throughout the San Antonio metropolitan region, so the conditions may not be bad near downtown, but the roads could be treacherous in Boerne. Keystone students are rarely absent, whether it’s because they want to be with their friends or they believe they cannot afford to miss the material taught in class; so, while we may say to families that even though we’re having school and it’s an excused absence if they choose to stay home, many students will come anyway.

In addition, we have faculty/staff coming to school from all over the area, and we want them to be safe on their commute. Some teachers and staff members also have young children attending school in a number of the surrounding districts so when those schools close, parents have to figure out childcare. If a number of them have to stay home, we have to procure substitutes but they may be unwilling to brave the roads.

So, going into it, heads know that making the decision of whether to hold school or not during inclement weather may be one of those calls where you simply cannot satisfy everyone. I have learned over the years though, that the surprise of a day called off can be incredibly satisfying and rejuvenating for students.

Yes, we have In Service Days where students don’t have classes but faculty/staff are working; however, those are scheduled in advance. While children and young adults may appreciate them, it’s not quite the same as finding out in the evening or the next morning that you get to sleep in, maybe stay in your pj’s all day (even if you have them on backwards), and shake up our daily habits. It’s as much about the spontaneity and the unexpected nature of a “snow” day as it might be about the actual fact that there’s no school. At a time in their lives when so much can seem predictable and routine (and don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of routine), a “shock to the system” can be exhilarating.

So, although days called off from school for bad weather can be inconvenient for us adults, let’s celebrate them for the joy they bring our children and recall the words of the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”

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