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Bad weather days: Safety first when calling off school

Tom Burris

My grandfather, a farmer, said that weather forecasters are newcomers or fools. We’ve come a long way since his days, but even with hourly reports based on the most accurate local weather data available, Mother Nature can change the game at a moment’s notice.

I’d like to think we usually get it right. But Wednesday, Feb. 22, was a particularly challenging bad weather day.

Here’s how it usually goes. I, along with the Montezuma-Cortez School District transportation director and employees living in the far reaches of the district, pore over multiple weather forecasts. We also confer with superintendents in outlying areas. Then, four of us school district employees drive the roads at 4:30 a.m. in each direction to make the best, most informed decision on a delayed start or a snow day.

Also, we watch the forecast for wind and champagne snow, the perfect combination for snowdrifts that fill bar ditches. These conditions along with icy roads could result in a busload of kids stuck in a ditch. Not what we want.

Despite our best efforts, it’s difficult to make the best call with changing weather conditions.

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 22, the Weather Channel app reported to expect 4 inches in the next 12 hours. Local superintendents shared what they would announce. We were having school.

Buses rolled out between 5:30 and 6 a.m. Then, the weather deteriorated quickly. Snow dumped and the wind blew.

According to the weather app, there was going to be about a three-hour window of moderate weather and we made a plan to get kids home during this time. We collaborated with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Montezuma County. Both had pulled their plows off the roads because of poor visibility.

When the window opened for better weather, we implemented the plan. All students made it home safely.

After school buses returned to the yard at 2:30 p.m., CDOT and the MCSD transportation director confirmed our plan was a success. An awesome joint effort.

I do understand, though, that any change in school schedules is tough on working parents with no child care or adult supervision for older students. This challenge can’t be underestimated.

I’m also responsible for 1,080 hours of instruction time. If we have to make up instructional time to meet state mandates, this additional time can add to families’ stress when Fridays become school days. But my first, greatest concern will always be our students’ safety.

For our decision to hold – then end – school on Feb. 22, a parent called me out on social media. I understand his frustration.

I do, though, hope that parents will instead choose to meet me in person with any concerns about how I run MCSD with my team. I’m always open to conversations, whether they’re about delayed starts or snow days or anything else.

I’m always here to listen. Or explain why we do, what we do, when we do it.

Tom Burris is superintendent of the Montezuma-Cortez School District. Email him at tburris@cortez.k12.co.us.