Those who have lived and worked in Minnesota understand the adage that, “if you don’t like the weather, be patient, it will change!” Our Minnesota climate offers a variety of weather conditions, making this State a wonderful place to live. Minnesota Superintendents either remember well the winter of 2014, or they have repressed that winter. We had two, two-day cold snaps, which forced many school districts to close. Governor Dayton closed all Minnesota schools on the first Monday of January in 2014.
In between these two cold snaps we had the National Weather Service (NWS) and media announce a wind-chill warning on January 15, 2014 for the morning of January 16, 2014. The warning was warranted, but the cold temperatures and wind speeds had a short duration (less than an hour) in the early hours of January 16. Temperatures warmed after we had already made announcements the evening before to our communities that school would be closed the following day. Wind chills in the metro were safe enough to open schools on the morning of January 16, causing confusion and consternation for many.
Superintendents are faced annually with making decisions about operating schools in varying weather conditions. The decision to maintain normal school operations, start late, release early, or close school for inclement weather conditions is a Superintendent’s responsibility. These decisions are also influenced by the expectations and traditions of our Minnesota communities. There is great respect for districts in greater Minnesota that remain open for their students and families on very cold, blustery days. In the metropolitan areas of the State, another contributing factor in Superintendent determinations are the capacity of private, State, County, and city plows to clear snow for safe and efficient commutes for students and staff to school. Regardless of geography and weather conditions, we have to do our best to ensure every student receives the civil right of an education every day of the school year. This article introduces Minnesota Superintendents to resources available to inform their decision-making during significant weather events, that are well beyond the typical watches and warnings our media provides, in order for schools to remain open and accessible to our public whenever possible.
Mr. Daniel Luna, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service (NWS), in Chanhassen on January 17, 2015 inquired about the criteria and process for closing schools. In general, our criteria and process in the metropolitan area is to gather information about the weather from many sources, and to begin conversations with Superintendents in the region in order to facilitate a collective decision about school closing, opening, or late starts. The decision still rests with each individual Superintendent. In this process the NWS’s warnings in these decisions have been important, as they indicate severity of weather conditions.
The NWS is committed to ensuring their scientific information, warnings, and communications provide relevant and useful data to make important decisions in our communities, such as determining whether our schools are open or not. After this January 16th event, the NWS explained how the watch and warning system by itself may not be the best information available for decision makers. The NWS suggest that Superintendents look beyond the current watch and warning system and know their local and regional conditions too. The NWS displayed to a small group of Superintendents additional data that goes beyond warnings and advisories and provides more context to the forecast. At that meeting, it was decided that the NWS should work collaboratively with Minnesota superintendents to provide essential, relevant data for decision-making related to weather.
One of Hopkins Public Schools technology leaders is a trained meteorologist and storm chaser. Mr. John Wetter became the author of the Minnesota Superintendent’s Weather web page which will be accessible on the front page of the MASA website some time after the MASA fall conference. The page pulls together various pieces of information not currently easily found and provides “hourly” understandable weather data:
- a colorful current weather discussion graphic
- the hourly weather forecast graph for your area
- radar and satellite imagery
- links to forecasts
- current conditions, watches and warnings
- risk for excessive cold, snow and sleet
- forecasters detailed summary of conditions and forecast
This website is filled with easy to read and relevant graphics and images for Superintendents to make data driven decisions.
The most notable items, especially for winter weather, are the risks for excessive cold and for sleet and snow. The other is the “Hourly Weather Forecast Graph”. This graph forecasts many weather variables over a 24-hour period, including temperature, snow fall, rainfall, wind chill, and other variables that contribute to seasonal weather hazards. For example, a Superintendent can see the temperature, windchill, and snowfall predictions when the school day starts.
The NWS will be partnering with the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) to provide more resources to Superintendents. MASA has kindly agreed to host the Superintendent weather website. Superintendents enter their zip code and the site will provide relevant information for that region. The NWS will also receive Superintendent email addresses from MASA. These addresses will be placed into the NWS message system. Superintendents will get emails on approaching hazardous weather early enough to begin analyzing weather data from the website to inform decision-making. This data-base sharing will be maintained annually with MASA assistance.
Additionally, the NWS provides thorough education focused on preparing our schools to be StormReady. On this website you will find a link for “Storm Ready in a Box”. This online kit and video provides background for staff or student groups and/or Earth Science classes to prepare their school(s) to be StormReady. School districts that have been certified as StormReady have found increased parent and staff confidence, especially in light of some of the extreme weather and storm damage observed in the central United States in recent years.
Another service the NWS has provided is a webinar for significant weather events approaching a region. For example, the weather service forecasted a significant snow event for the metropolitan area on November 10th, 2014. The NWS and media outlets appropriately warned that a significant snowfall event was going to impact the region. The winter storm warning informed us that the metropolitan area would receive 14 inches of snow. The storm dropped up to 16 inches of snow in the northern metropolitan counties, and southern counties received only 1 to 2 inches of snow. As a result of the webinar provided by the weather service, northern metropolitan school districts decided to close in order to give plows a chance to clean roadways. Southern metropolitan school districts maintained normal operations. Being in direct contact with the NWS, and armed with more specific and detailed data, provides more relevant information in an ambivalent, yet important, watch and warning system.
It would be great if our weather was 72 degrees and sunny every day, with 0.1 inches of rain every other night. However, we live in a climate where the norm is changing weather, which may become extreme enough to harm. As a result, our decision-making in order to safely operate schools for our children, families, and staff becomes one of heightened importance for school leaders and the National Weather Service. If our decision-making is too extreme, keeping school open at all costs, we may inadvertently harm a child or staff member in their commute to school. If our decision-making becomes too cautious in closing schools it jeopardizes learning and the civil right of providing education to our communities. We hope the accessible and understandable resources introduced in this article help all of us avoid these extremes, keeping access to school safe and efficient. We anticipate that this National Weather Service resource will be used in the decision-making we often need in order to operate schools in our beautifully diverse four-season climate.