Snow days again?

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.

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14 thoughts on “Snow days again?

  1. BigAl

    Let me get this straight: a parent is “not content” with a school system that erred on the side of protecting our children from harm or death from adverse winter driving conditions?

    A very progressive attitude (please note sarcasm), right up there with kids in coal mines and old people eating cat food.

    I have no doubt that when a child dies on the way to school because the system caved in to your self-righteous indignation, you will be the first in line to attack their poor judgement.

    Right or wrong, the schools made their decisions in the best interests of the children. That IS Leadership, and they can certainly do without your kind of petty sniping.

  2. Yeah right

    If this bothers you so much David, then run for office and actually make a change instead of complaining so fervently. That’s all I hear from parents anymore, is big talk about how that parent could have driven the kid to school and how the buses should have been out that day, but because of a little ice the children stayed home. It’s a liability and a danger for these buses to be out in bad weather. Not everyone drives a big 4 wheel drive SUV, sir. Personally, I feel that children should go to school year round, with very short breaks thrown in around holidays and that would solve the issue of missed school days because of snow. Missing a few days over the winter wouldn’t be a big deal if there were classes over the summer and I know quite a lot of kids who would love to have something educational and productive to do over the summer besides laying around being bored.

  3. Ashevegasjoe

    Just took a quick look at Omaha, and Calgary, they are indeed hilly. However, Asheville, especially Fairview, Montreat, and North Buncombe, are mountainous. Whereas in Nebraska you have a perfectly square grid pattern of roads, we have switch backs and 1,000ft. drops in elevation. And yes, we don’t have the tax base to pre-treat the roads, or in the last two years, deal with the amount of snow. I’ve had this arguement with many people from the mid-west, who invariably come to visit and have to get towed from a ditch. An inch or two of snow here makes for far more dangerous driving, than a foot in Nebraska.

  4. People seem totally dense regarding the terrain in this area….even atop town mountain conditions can be substantially different and dangerous, than they are down on Charlotte.

  5. maggie7

    Absolutely right on. I’ve lived in upstate NY and new engalnd in places just as mountainous as here and with a whole lot more snow. True we don’t have the snow removal budget here but people do freak out and feel they can’t drive and schools have to close in a little snow.It’s a mindset and you can drive if there are some slick spots,just be safe and careful. Very accurate portrayel of difference between storms and snow showers. I’ve lived here many years and when we get snow showers the city roads are usually clear by early AM and the county roads by 10 AM 90% of the time.

  6. maggie7

    Right on! You are totally accurate. I’ve lived places with much more snow and just as mountainous. Schools and business goes on as usual. When we have snow showers and not a storm, usually city roads are clear early in the AM and county roads by 10 AM. It’s a mindset. Drive safely and carefully and with common sense. An occasional slick spot is no reason to disrupt most daily activities.

  7. Brad Burleson

    I grew up in Banner Elk (Avery County), it snowed a lot more than it does here and we didn’t miss anywhere near the days missed in Asheville and Buncombe county. If it was a normal snow event they would have school, often with no buses running on secondary roads, or a delay of one or two hours. We all understand liability, however the worry over icy spots on the road is taken a little to the extreme in Asheville and Buncombe county. Some of the snows they have canceled school over this year have been ridiculous.

  8. The Trolls Troll

    “It’s a liability and a danger for these buses to be out in bad weather.”

    @Yeah Right: And it’s not a liability in other places where it snows?

    Btw, I agree 100 percent with Mr. Lehlbach. These school districts need to take a serious looks at changing their snow day policies.

  9. Not-a-Parent

    I think it is more difficult to “just be careful” with a 14 ton bus full of school children than with a passenger car. A bus on a hill that loses traction and starts sliding? The kids start screaming and panicking? Who wants to be behind the wheel when that happens? I think our bus drivers and the school’s staff do a great job, and while I can sympathize that it is *inconvenient* to have kids out for a snow day – if I were a parent I’d rather have them safe and sound than careening down a patch of black ice on a mountain road.

  10. Just Me

    I have no ‘kid’ in the race, but it seems to me given the nature of some areas being unsafe while others are prefectly fine that there could be more flexibility.

    The people who live on the steep and higher grounds have to go to work too. If they have a vehicle that allows them to get down to go to work, then they could bring their child with them to school. Buses would run on main roads that are safer.

    For people who are just too ‘shut in’ if the parents and kids are all snowed/iced in together, why couldn’t they help with catch-up work? Especially for elementary school work, although more specialized high school classes would be trickier. Afterall, it is what the kids are learning, not their warm bodies in a classroom, that is supposed to count, right? And there are tests at the end of the year to make sure they’ve learned everything to go onto the next grade. Homeschoolers have access to those tests and know what will be on them. Why not parents who are going to be at home with their school children as well?

  11. missanne thrope

    mr. lehlbach is so right on…unbelievable what a’snow day’ looks like…of course, part of the problem is that many people CAN’T DRIVE on a good sunny day(which many ‘snow days’ have been). combine their incompetence with a 1/4″ dusting on the backside of town mtn and the whole city shuts down…yes, it is costing us all umpteen thousands in lost productivity and our children are getting a total joke of an education out of the deal because it is disruptive to the schedule and a half day make up on a saturday is another part of the joke…

    solution? put f&#%ing chains on the buses…with chains on you can drive a little smart car up a snow covered TREE, let alone some not very bad roads…

  12. Ashevegasjoe

    Sounds like a lot of married people and children have had to spend too much time together. “Please, let it be spring again, so I don’t have to be locked up in this house with my family!” –w.asheville resident

  13. bill smith

    [b]For parents who have day jobs (and even those who don’t), it’s both highly disruptive and completely unwarranted.[/b]

    So you think schools are day cares?

    You don’t think erring on the side of caution is sensible?

  14. Clocky

    In general, I agree with the letter-writer, but I can’t even believe he compares Omaha and Calgary to Asheville. Omaha has over 400,000 residents in the city alone (never mind the suburbs), and since it has much more snow per year ALSO, of course, they have a FAR larger snow-removal budget than does Asheville. Calgary ditto. You pay lip service to the difference, but frankly you shouldn’t even mention those cities for the purpose of comparison. You should only compare Asheville to other cities of the same size and similar climate.

    These cancellations and delays have a negative impact. I think the local schools have experienced about a dozen two-hour delays this year, so that counts as 24 hours of “instructional” time just lost. NEVER made up. They make a big idea out of the required 180 days. When they miss a day, then it has to be made up some other time. However, consider the time lost to these ridiculous delays; that time is never given back to the students. They never get their 180 days.

    Saturday school is a joke. My son’s teacher said not to worry about Saturday school, because on Saturdays she was just going to let the kids “chill”. Nice. My tax dollars at work.

    Give me year-round schools with a three week break during December-January, please. Anything but this.

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