Michigan school closings: how superintendents make decisions on snow days
- Michigan superintendents use weather forecasts and talk to surrounding district leaders to determine school cancellations
- School leaders also consider road conditions
- Canceled classes can throw off student and parent routines
Cold temperatures and the potential for snow mean early mornings for Michigan school superintendents.
It was about 4:20 a.m. when Matt Stuard, superintendent at Fowlerville Community Schools, made the call to cancel school last Friday.
“I have to make sure that my phone is not muted and that I’m available because you just never know, the forecast doesn’t always work out,” he said.
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Many Michigan superintendents said that choosing to cancel school is a balancing act: they want students and staff to be safe but they also don’t want to inconvenience parents. They keep an eye on the forecast but know the weather can change rapidly.
To ensure that bus drivers and parents can plan for their days, Stuard said he tries to get a closure decision made by 5 a.m.
Friday’s decision was tough, he said, because the forecast predicted the snow and wind would start around 2 or 3 pm. — right around when the district’s elementary schools are letting out for dismissal.
Michigan schools must have at least 180 days and can call off school up to six days for things outside of their control like bad weather or health conditions. They can request a waiver from the Michigan Department of Education for up to three more days.
If they go over nine days, they may have to extend the school year or add additional hours to the existing school day.
Many districts have policies where they will cancel school if the windchill is 25 or 30 degrees below zero because superintendents do not want students to get frostbite while waiting for the bus, said Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators.
“It’s a tough decision to make and parents are generally not happy no matter what decision you make,” she said. Superintendents don’t want to call off school too early but there is also the worry that if a superintendent has to call for an early dismissal, working parents are scrambling.
Even before the official call is made, students are often hopeful school will get canceled.
Riley McGuire, a special education teacher in the Fowlerville district, said “everyone’s kind of in a better mood” when there’s a potential for a snow day.
Students and staff joke about participating in superstitious rituals to help ensure a snow day like putting spoons under pillows, wearing pajamas inside out or flushing ice down the toilet, McGuire said.
Friday’s cancellation paired with school being off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day meant students and teachers in the district had a four-day weekend.
McGuire said she worries about students who struggle at home and want to get back to their routines in school where they can get free breakfast and lunch.
Snow days can throw off students’ and parents’ routines.
“We're never going to do anything to sacrifice the safety of our students, so you have to take into consideration that it is a big inconvenience on families,” Benjamin Mainka, superintendent for Novi Public Schools.
Mainka said he tries to alert parents of a snow day the night before to accommodate childcare changes and to lessen other parent inconveniences.
Road conditions are another factor that superintendents take into account before deciding to cancel school.
Side streets and back roads, which are usually plowed after the main roads, are primarily used in the Pennfield School District.
“We talk with the road commission to find out when our plows are going to hit the roads and make some decisions based on that,” said Stephanie Lemmer, superintendent for the west Michigan school district.
While Rockford Public Schools in Kent County did have a snow day on Friday, Superintendent Steve Matthews did not cancel school again on Monday.
“We had all day Sunday to try to monitor how effective the road commissions were being,” Matthews said. “I took a drive around the district yesterday afternoon … and from what we were able to see, roads were getting cleaned up.”
Covenant Schools Superintendent Terrence George oversees three Detroit campuses, a Grand Rapids campus and a Highland Park campus. So far this school year, the Grand Rapids campus has had two closure days while the Detroit campuses have had zero.
He looks at several things to determine if school should close: what is the weather in Detroit? What is the drive like for staff? Are other metro Detroit schools closing because of weather? Is there an afternoon storm that could make it hard for students and families to get home after school?
“Sometimes it’s super easy and everybody loves me because I just canceled school…sometimes it’s more complicated than that,” he said.
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