Carolina Curious: How Do Schools Decide When To Cancel Classes for Weather?

Carolina Curious: How Do Schools Decide When To Cancel Classes for Weather?

12:44pm Feb 20, 2020
Children in Winston-Salem play in the snow after a winter storm in December 2018. KERI BROWN/WFDD

Many Triad parents were greeted with a flurry of messages Wednesday announcing weather-related changes to school schedules.  

Listener John Dillard has received these kinds of alerts many times since his daughter enrolled in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. But, he says, he still doesn’t understand how that decision is made. 

“There doesn't seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to it. They'll be calling for a certainty of sleet or ice or frozen precipitation. But we anticipate it to be mild and they won't delay or cancel school," he says. "And then the very next circumstance will be similar [and] they’ll completely cancel school or jump the gun in going on a delay. And it just doesn't seem to be any consistency to the matter.”

In this edition of Carolina Curious, WFDD looks into who determines when school gets canceled and why. 

It turns out, there’s not just one snow-day decider. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools spokesperson Brent Campbell says it’s a team of people, and he’s part of it.  

“The transportation folks and then our folks that manage and secure and keep our campuses safe, along with the operations team, my department," he says. "Of course, the superintendent of schools is included and our instructional superintendents.” 

The district’s operations team monitors the weather, and when conditions start looking dicey, they email forecasts to the rest of the group. If things get worse, they call a meeting to try to figure out what to do next. There, they take another look at the forecasts and review an analysis of major roadways. 

The transportation folks are the heavyweights in the room. That’s because, Campbell says, the most critical factor is whether or not students can get to school safely. There’s a lot to consider. 

“How could these things impact things like road temperatures and conditions, what the roads are going to be like? How could they impact our travel times? How might they impact student drivers?” he says.

The district’s size and complex transportation system mean these meetings sometimes stretch into hours. 

“We've had instances where, say, the northern parts of Forsyth County get a lot more precipitation," he says. "There's even been times when there's some freezing weather in one part of the county and not in the other. We have to take all of that into consideration.”

Campbell says if weather disrupts even one bus route, the entire system is affected.

Road conditions, visibility, and even lunch schedules are all taken into account. They also consider how long students may have to spend waiting for a bus or walking home in bad weather. 

There are some facts that can make the decision easier. School buses can’t run if winds are greater than 50 miles per hour, according to the manufacturer. And if it’s colder than 20 degrees, some bus engines don’t start up correctly.

The deadline to make the call is typically around 5 a.m. because buses begin running at 5:30 a.m. 

Campbell acknowledges that sometimes their decisions are controversial.

“We do not want to put anyone in harm's way. So we will always err on the side of caution. And sometimes the weather doesn't happen exactly as predicted. And you can second guess it and say, 'Well, why did they make that decision?' I think you can always rest assured that the decision was made with safety at top of mind.”

On average, the district cancels about four days of school a year due to weather. The most it’s ever called off is 12, back in 1995.  

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