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Snow closes the classroom, but the gym stays open

With forecasts of below-zero temperatures and dangerous wind chills, Saline Area Schools closed its classrooms on Jan. 24.

That same day, a posting on the Facebook page for the district, south of Ann Arbor, urged fans to show up that night for a boy's high school basketball game against Ann Arbor Pioneer.

“Come out and cheer on our Hornets! It is a great day to beat AAP!” it read.

While the Hornets rallied to beat Ann Arbor 38-33, the decision to hold the game left one resident cold.

“Wait, what? Saline Area Schools are closed due to weather related issues, but we are encouraged to 'come out and cheer on our hornets'??? Am I the only one confused here?,” she posted.

Saline Superintendent Scot Graden insisted that such decisions – made dozens of times this winter in districts across the state – are not made lightly.

On days school is closed for weather, Graden said officials in his district weigh predicted weather and road conditions at the time of evening events, often sporting events. In some cases, conditions improve enough during the day that it can be an easy call to hold evening activities.

Graden said different risk factors come into play when deciding to close classrooms during the school day. Officials must consider that students – especially young ones – may be exposed to dangerous weather conditions for 15 or 20 minutes as they wait for buses. That's not always the case for evening events.

“We look at conditions. We look at the temperatures at the time of a game. We take all that into account,” he said.

John Johnson, spokesman for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said the call on holding sporting events when school is otherwise closed is strictly local. Some districts have a blanket policy to close all evening activities when school is closed. Others take it case by case.

“Like many things in school sports, they are matters of local control,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he is unaware of any undue pressure on districts to hold sporting events even when conditions are unsafe. “I don't know of a district that would think that way,” he said.

Graden said his district changed its policy about 20 years ago. Before that, he said, no school meant no evening events.

At Monroe Public Schools, about 30 miles southwest of Detroit, those decisions have been a moving target. The district has closed school 12 days this year.

Until the end of January, officials decided on a case-by-case basis whether to hold evening events or travel to away athletic events on days school was closed.

“It was kind of pick and choose,” Superintendent Barry Martin said. “There were some sleepless nights for me waiting for buses to get back.”

Martin finally decided that the district’s decision to sometimes hold sporting events on snow days was taking away from the district's basic mission.

“I think its a bad message to send to the public. We don't have school, the academic piece, but let's go ahead and hold sports.”

On Jan. 31, Martin announced a new policy that required that all school events, including sporting events, would be canceled when school is closed. The policy would also cancel travel to athletic events at other schools.

Seven days later, schools were closed on a Monday due to “dangerously cold wind-chill conditions.”

Nevertheless, Monroe announced it would host its scheduled home boys' basketball game that night against Saline. Martin said he decided to make a one-time exception.

“We had a number of Hall of Fame honorees flying in from out of state” for the game, and cancelling it “would have been a P.R. nightmare,” Martin explained.

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