Up until the recent respite, it had been a pretty rough winter, with too many snow days for local schoolchildren. It’s time for the Asheville City Schools to stop feeding local paranoia about wintry weather and, instead, support a normal educational routine.
This ridiculous pattern of on-and-off schooling is hard on kids and parents alike. For parents who have day jobs (and even those who don’t), it’s both highly disruptive and completely unwarranted. It also sends ripples through the local economy, since businesses are impacted when people aren’t out and about as usual.
Compared with other areas, Asheville’s winter climate is generally mild. When the newspapers or TV people talk about “snow,” they usually mean snow showers rather than a real snowstorm. On Monday, Jan. 24, for example, there was only a very moderate dusting of snow throughout the city. Snowstorms, where there is an organized low-pressure system, are typically discussed more ominously for days in advance, and we usually receive several inches of snow. (Christmas Day 2010 was a great example of this.) Our community needs to understand the difference between the two.
And when either event occurs, the reaction from the superintendent’s office is unpredictable. The city schools often close for snow showers. But the snow dusting usually comes in the early morning hours, when few people are out, and as the morning wears on and cars drive the roads, conditions tend to improve (unless it’s really cold — i.e., below 28 degrees — which is rare).
On a typical day, the main arteries are in decent shape by 7 a.m., and oftentimes, by 9 or 10 a.m., the sun peeks out. That’s what happened Jan. 24, yet the city schools were closed. If we all exercised some caution during the morning commute, kids could attend school even when there is precipitation. Interstate 40 over Old Fort Mountain and Interstate 26 north of town might be treacherous, but right here in Asheville, the roads are drivable.
Some may claim this would be dangerous for kids and the community, but this is where we, as Asheville residents, need some perspective. I recently witnessed rush hour in Calgary, Alberta, with minus 3 degrees, 20 mph wind gusts, 4 inches of snow on the ground and about 8 inches anticipated. I was amazed to see appropriately dressed kids standing alongside major arteries, waiting for their buses. The school opening wasn’t even delayed; instead, the community rallied to make the day as normal as possible.
Another example: My family used to live in Omaha, Neb., where schools and businesses operate regardless of how much snow is on the ground or how cold it is. Parents are effectively forced to get out of bed early, shovel the sidewalks and driveways, get the kids ready for school — and then get to work on time. Meanwhile, Chicago’s city school district, which includes more roads and children than Asheville’s, recently had its first snow day since 1999!
Both Calgary and Omaha are as hilly as Asheville and are equally prone to odd distributions of precipitation across their metro areas. And while they may have more snow-fighting funds at their disposal, they also get more cold winter-weather events (with much larger impacts), spread across more of the school year. We certainly could and should do a little extra on our own “wintry” days, which are mild by comparison.
Unless there’s an organized low-pressure weather event, the differences in precipitation impacts across our city aren’t usually stark enough to justify school closings. Decisions should be made based on the conditions of the primary arterial roads. Some areas may have precipitation on back roads, but it’s nothing that careful driving can’t solve. We should expect this sort of wintry weather and respond accordingly: with shovels, hats and gloves, ice scrapers, patience and a little extra time allowed.
There’s also the issue of educational continuity. This pattern of closings and delayed openings must wreak havoc with lesson plans, not to mention any sort of continuity in the classroom. Instead, every day must feel like a free-for-all. Teachers must be the most adaptive people on the planet, but as parents and school administrators, we should ask ourselves to be equally adaptive in reducing the disruptions, helping teachers create as “normal” an environment as possible.
Making up snow days may seem like no big deal, but pushing school into June is a major budget issue for the districts funded by our tax dollars. And scheduling makeup days on Saturdays or during holiday periods disrupts the overall school experience. Besides, some people plan vacations, family visits, etc. during those holiday weekends.
Eliminating those breaks may satisfy state requirements, but if 10 percent of the students aren’t there, we’ve lost the continuity our schools need. And even if the state considers an “early dismissal” Saturday-makeup a “full day,” we as parents must consider both the number and the quality of our children’s school days.
Am I the only parent who finds this pattern frustrating? We can’t control Mother Nature, but we must learn to control our collective reaction to her. I am not content with the district’s reactionary responses to this year’s mostly inconsequential weather events.
When it comes to my children’s schooling, I want a more predictable pattern. I want leadership, where school is held on days like Jan. 24, when a simple dusting triggered yet another missed day of school.
Just because one part of the city has slick roads, that doesn’t mean they can’t be driven on. We should expect to go to school on inclement days and treat snow days as the exception, not the rule. Our community’s weather decisions significantly impact our children’s education: It’s time we started publicly debating this key issue.
— Asheville resident David Lehlbach works to improve the efficiency of transportation systems and is the proud parent of a child in the Asheville City Schools.