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Snow days: Here's how you'll know why and when we close

CMSD NEWS BUREAU
1/7/2015
(The following is a partially rewritten web post of a Dec. 1, 2014, story).
 
Winter's back and CMSD families and others are facing that daily question: Will my child's school be open today -- or not?
 
After a surprisingly early (if brief) arrival to winter in November, we've been spared from particularly cold weather or a lot of snow through the holiday season. That's apparently changing as weather forecasters are tracking a "clipper" coming down from Canada and across the Midwest.
 
So here's what you need to know about the when and why of the closing of school buildings in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District during the winter months. The answer to many frequently-asked questions about the CMSD school-closing policy and procedures can be found on our website, here, or at the bottom of this story.
 
But here's the bottom line: When schools are closed, you will be told by 6 a.m. -- primarily through the mainstream media, but supplemented by social media and direct outreach by automated calls when possible.  Many families are first checking our Facebook page and our Twitter account as they monitor the TV or radio stations.
 
When one school or group of schools will be closed, the decision will be made at least two hours prior to the scheduled school opening if possible. 
 
Difficult decisions in a tough weather town
 
Is there anything more frustrating and potentially more controversial than the school snow day?

For the kids, snow days are often unexpected play days. But for families juggling jobs, school for the kids, travel to and from both places and the tough decisions about day care or babysitting, these unscheduled off days may cause havoc in the house, on the job and even financially.

And for school officials who have to make the call to close or keep open their schools each time it snows heavily, the scenarios are endless, rarely clear-cut and often open to criticism – no matter which way they decide.
 
For every easy decision (the blizzard that shuts down the entire city; “Snovember” in Buffalo, anyone?), there are a dozen days where school superintendents and operations officials are consulting meteorological forecasts, trying to divine a meteorological future – and hoping they’re not completely wrong.

All of that is especially true for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Not only does CMSD have by far the most students in Northeast Ohio, at nearly 40,000, and employees, about 7,000, the District spreads across a notoriously fickle weather region, from the often snow-bombed East Side to the sometimes barely dusted West.

"Each day is unique, but we work very hard to make sure we’re making the decision that is best for our students and their families, for their safety, but also for their education," said CMSD Chief Operating Officer Patrick Zohn.

"We do face challenges because of the size of our district, including the management of a fleet of more than 220 buses, and we have to balance the needs of our scholars to be in school not only for academics, but also nutrition. We know that when we close one school or the entire District, it sets off a series of events for families as well, so we take it very seriously."

Zohn often helps District Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon determine when a calamity day should be called for individual schools, all of the schools or even all of the District’s offices – but in the end, it is the CEO who makes the call.
 
It's a call for all of Cleveland's schools even though the weather can be drastically different on any given winter day at Oliver H. Perry, nearly at the Euclid border, than at Clara Westropp School on Puritas Avenue, closer to Rocky River or Fairview Park, some 22 miles west.

The size of the sprawling district is compounded by the fact that official weather data is generated by the National Weather Service station at Cleveland International Airport – on the often snow-challenged far West Side.
 
Then, throw in the reality that Cleveland school children all qualify for free breakfast and lunch program, which means that if they’re in school, they’re guaranteed hot meals. In a city with a 54 percent child poverty rate, that’s not guaranteed at home.  

The 'Polar Vortex' Winter
 
Remember last year, the Polar Vortex winter of 2013-14?
 
While last winter's official snowfall amount – 86.1 inches – ranked only eighth for snowiest winter over the last century (according to Cleveland.com/DataCentral's analysis of National Weather Service records), storm after storm seemed to hit at the worst possible time and the push of arctic air made it an exceptionally cold winter. The average low of 16.9 degrees was fourth lowest in the last 50 years, forcing CMSD and virtually every other school district in the state to close schools for more days than at any point in recent memory.

According to cleveland.com, a Buckeye Association of School Administrators survey found that Ohio schools last winter had canceled nearly 10 days, on average, due to severe weather and several districts in southern Ohio reported canceling nearly 20 days.
 
 But judging from the response on social media, there were many people who thought it should have been more. Others argued for fewer. 
 
The particularly bad winter prompted the legislature and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to approve an extension of the usual 5-day allowance for calamity days. Cleveland schools were closed eight times, but students were able to make up the time through online or take-home courses and the District did not have to extend the school year.
 
 “Last year was exceptional because so many school districts throughout Ohio and the Great Lakes region were closed for a significant number of days," Zohn said. "But we go through the same protocols whether it's for an early dismissal, or one snow day, or even a multiple-day weather condition." 
 
Last year, the District used "Blizzard Bags" to allow students to study at home, then be tested on the material, rather than have to extend the year to make up the days. The Ohio legislature also approved giving the state's public schools a one-year break, extending the number of calamity days that could be used without having to schedule makeup days.
 
 

 
Frequently Asked Questions (and answers) 

How will I find out that my child's school is closed or delayed or that my child is being sent home early or relocated?

1. When all schools are closed or delayed or students are being sent home early, parents and caregivers will be notified through the media
2. When one school or a group of schools are closed or delayed, the parents and caregivers will be notified through emergency contact numbers on file at the school.
3. Whenever practical, however, notice by school telephone chains, the School District’s Interactive Voice Recording (IVR) system and District website will also be used.

When will I find out that the school is closed, delayed or my child is being sent home early or relocated?

When all schools are closed, you will be notified by 6 a.m. When one school or group of schools will be closed, the decision to will be made at least 2 hours prior to the school opening if at all possible. The chief executive officer will decide by 5:45 am. Media will be notified by 6 a.m.

Who decides to close school, delay school start, dismiss school early or relocate a students?

The CEO makes the final decision, but the chief operating officer and deputy chief of operations also may recommend closure, delay or early dismissal to the CEO after discussions with Safety & Security and Transportation officials. In the case of relocation, The CEO, consults with the academic superintendent and notifies the school, chiefs of Safety, Transportation and Communications. The executive director of Food Service and central office support will be assigned to assist the school to be relocated.

What are the acceptable reasons?

Wind Chill Chart
Acceptable reasons include hazardous weather, interruption of water, electricity or similar services and other conditions making it impractical to open a school building or conditions that warrant closing.
 
Weather variables include wind chill temperature (a wind chill temperature of minus 15 degrees as forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service for the Cleveland NOAA), precipitation (freezing rain or sleet; ice on the ground; 5-10 inches of snow on the ground; and 3 or more inches of snow overnight on top of existing snow), visibility (less than 50 feet); street or sidewalk conditions (icy or deep snow) or city advisories (airport, travel or street “advisory” or “warning” issued by city or weather services).
 
 
Will after-school, before-school or weekend activities be cancelled?

1. After-school activities are cancelled when all schools are closed or students are sent home early or relocated. Activities are not cancelled when school is delayed. Activities are cancelled at individual or groups of schools if those schools are closed.
2. Before-school activities are cancelled when all schools, one school or a group are closed or delayed.
3. Weekend activities will be judged on a day-to-day basis (i.e. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will each be judged separately). Activities will be cancelled if schools are closed on Friday, unless otherwise directed by CEO (all events), commissioner of athletics (athletics) or academic superintendents K-12 (individual school events). If the conditions that caused a closing on Friday have changed for the better on Saturday and/or Sunday and it is safe to conduct the activities, then those will go forward as scheduled.

How will I be notified if weekend events are cancelled or will be held?

Parents, caregivers and participants will be notified via local news stations and any call lists for participants.

Do I have to be told that my child is being sent home?

1. Parental notification is required for early dismissal of a student under 18 years old, but all parents, regardless of their students’ age, will be contacted and advised of the early dismissal.
2. Parental consent is required for early dismissal of any student under 18 years old. Parental consent may be provided in advance with written sign-off or obtained via telephone at the time of the early dismissal. Written logs of the consent obtained should be maintained at all schools. Identification should be checked for individuals who pick up students for early dismissal. Parental consent is not required for students age 18 and older.

Do school employees still go to work when schools are closed, delayed or my child is sent home?

1. If all schools are closed: School-based employees are not expected to report to school, except custodians, who are expected to report to school unless otherwise directed by the Facilities Office. Central office staff (employees assigned to administrative sites) are expected to report unless exempted by their union agreement (e.g. Local 1199).

2. If one or a group of schools are closed: Custodians, security personnel and building administrators must report, but teaching staff is not expected to report unless directed by the principal to assist with students who may arrive at school. Security personnel report to the Office of Safety and Security for redeployment.

3. If all facilities are closed: School building staff are not expected to report unless directed by the principal to assist with students who may arrive at school. Central office staff (employees assigned to administrative sites) are not expected to report unless defined as “critical staff.”

4. If children are sent home early: All employees are expected to remain at work until all students are picked up and dismissed by their supervisor, or at regular release time, whichever is earlier.

5. If students are relocated to another school: All employees are expected to remain to assist with the relocation as directed by the principal.

6. Central office support will be assigned to assist the school to be relocated.