Fazed by the misguided craze over snow days

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Ashley Lau | 15 years, 1 month ago

MCPS's tendency to call off school at the sight of flurries creates problems for parents, teachers

Don't bother buying new snow boots for school this winter - you won't need them. Apparently, students aren't capable of getting to school in anything deeper than a quarter-inch of snow, or so it seems from the number of closures and delays given each year for less than inclement weather.

While there's a lot to love about a snow day - an extra day of rest, a chance to sleep late, a break from school - there's a big problem with the way cancellations and delays are announced at the drop of a flurry. On the surface, snow days are everything sweet - but take another look, or just peer out the window, and it becomes clear that MCPS needs to re-examine its snow day policy.

It would be one thing to call for school cancellations if we lived in a county that put no effort into emergency preparation. But Montgomery County is amply prepared for any weather inconvenience: The county currently has 200 highway maintenance employees and contractors with 195 pieces of snow removal equipment, according to the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

These emergency preparations are intended to make the roads safe for access. But if safety justifies these numerous delays and cancellations, then MCPS has superficially extended the definition of "safety." We live in an imperfect world, and the safety of students will always be an issue. But there comes a point at which the disadvantages created for parents by closures and delays far outweigh the need for overzealous "precautionary safety measures."

Before giving in to a slight dusting of snow or those infamously unreliable weather report predictions, MCPS should consider the burdens school cancellations and delays create. Working parents across the county must take snow days off, potentially losing pay or leave time.

According to MCPS demographics, 43 percent of all students are currently enrolled in grades pre-kindergarten to five. Because it is against the law for children under eight to stay home alone, parents are forced to take time off from work to care for their children on snow days. This includes parents of children enrolled in MCPS day-care centers following the MCPS closings.

MCPS is very diverse, and county families range from blindingly wealthy to barely subsisting. For the parents of the 23.2 percent of MCPS students receiving Free and Reduced Meals, missing a day of work means losing that day's pay. Snow days place a huge burden on parents who scrape by working jobs that pay by the hour.

The process MCPS uses to determine school closings or delays begins as early as 3 a.m. with a team of nine transportation safety supervisors who drive prescribed routes in all parts of the county, according to Stephen Raucher, director of the Department of Transportation. Though it is understandable that resolutions must be made early enough to accommodate high schools, conditions can change during the six hours from 3 a.m. to the start of elementary schools at 9:15 a.m. Weather predictions fluctuate, while precipitation may dwindle or not even occur at all. Imagine the frustration of working parents waking up to find a school closure and almost no precipitation.

Not only do these unnecessary cancellations pose an inconvenience to parents, but they can also prove to be a barrier to students' educations. Granted, when a massive storm the size of the 1996 blizzard is due to arrive, teachers can plan in advance and give students assignments ahead of time to keep up with lessons. However, because teachers cannot always predict when MCPS will call a snow day, classroom lessons are often hindered by superfluous delays and cancellations.

During the 2003-2004 school year, MCPS lost a total of 10 school days because of weather inclemency. Many argue that adding days onto the end of the school year is an appropriate solution to ensure students receive the full 180 days required. However, adding days onto the end of the school year does little to compensate for individual days lost during the winter. For the most part, the last few days of class are often spent watching movies or wrapping up end-of-the-year projects, not learning new material. As English teacher Carole Tomayko puts it, "By that time, students have mentally checked out." Tacking missed days onto the end of the year is especially ineffective for AP classes that finish material before the AP tests in May.

This is not to say that school cancellations or delays shouldn't be called when they are justly needed. MCPS, however, needs to be more careful in calling snow days so that parents and teachers are not disadvantaged by unnecessary cancellations. Snow days are golden and sacred to students, but they should be granted on the basis of necessity and not at the threat of a passing flurry.

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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