How are weather decisions made?

  • Careful thought informs SCASD weather decisions

    It’s dark outside, the quiet before the dawn when most of the State College Area School District community is still sleeping.

    But with snow bearing down or falling fast, Superintendent Curtis Johnson and Transportation Director Van Swauger often are wide awake, their day already started.

    During the winter, Johnson and Swauger often rise early to begin determining whether the district will announce a 1-hour, 2-hour or 3-hour-delay, or cancel school, because of the weather. After carefully considering information from various sources, they make the call for almost 7,000 students and their families — school as usual, a shorter morning or closure.

    The essential question for the district: Are the conditions safe for all students to arrive at school from home in a safe manner?

    “Mr. Swauger and I take these decisions very seriously,” Johnson said. “The safety of our students is our highest priority. We are fortunate to have great cooperation from our municipalities, weather experts within our community, and neighboring school districts.”

    Few, if any other, school districts draw on as much information and expertise as part of their protocols for weather-related concerns.

    “I’m proud of the thought process and people that help us with these decisions,” Johnson said.

    Before the district’s notification system can alert families and employees by phone, email and text, though, there’s much work to be done.

    Swauger gets the early bird prize, waking at 4 a.m. and speaking with local National Weather Service meteorologists to receive the latest forecasts and updates. When is snow coming? When will it stop? How hard is it going to fall? Will it be consistent or taper off?

    In addition, Ferguson Township-based AccuWeather provides the district with detailed forecasts and meteorological data.

    If it’s already snowing or sleeting, Swauger turns to another source: local police. He calls the county’s 911 communications office, which arranges for road reports from officers on duty throughout the district.

    For yet more opinions about roads and the weather, Swauger speaks with his chief mechanic and the district’s grounds supervisor, both of whom are usually out and about by that time to assess conditions.

    Information in hand, Swauger then calls Johnson, typically by 4:45 a.m.

    “Mr. Swauger is our district expert because he gathers and understands the most up-to-date information possible,” Johnson said. “We struggle a few times per year with challenging situations, including instances when precipitation has yet to begin; this is because we need to make our decision about two hours prior to our drivers picking up secondary students.”

    Together, before the sun rises, they mull the situation.

    Assessing local weather data, which may differ from one service to another, can be tricky. To make a judgement call, Johnson and Swauger weigh all of the information available.

    In the case of extreme cold, the district may consider a 1-hour delay, 2-hour delay, 3-hour-delay or cancellation if the actual temperature dips below minus 5 degrees, and there is a windchill below minus 20 degrees. Any decision takes into account how long students are exposed to the cold and whether buses can operate properly. Sometimes, it can be too cold for the amounts of fuel additive the district is allowed by state law to mix with school bus diesel fuel to prevent it from congealing.

    But the decision is rarely that cut and dried.

    More often, Johnson and Swauger take into account a combination of several factors, including road conditions, precipitation and both actual and windchill temperatures. Complicating the issue, the weather can vary widely across the district’s 150 square miles. Snowfall in town may not match from one side to another, let alone the surrounding townships.

    Neighborhoods also differ. Some have numerous students who walk to school. During storms, they might be at risk from frostbite or falling branches.

    Another factor might be predicted conditions throughout the day, and whether temperatures and precipitation will affect the afternoon transition home.

    “I think the bottom line is we do it all for the safety of the kids,” Swauger said.

    And then there are the student drivers. Every year, the district issues about 100 parking passes to juniors, most of whom presumably are new drivers unaccustomed to winter driving. Another 300 or so passes go to seniors who also might be unfamiliar with the difficulties of negotiating ice and snow.

    “Although the decision is not always free of doubt, we work to make informed decisions using the most up-to-date information available,” Johnson said.

    The problem is, as they’re thinking, the clock is ticking.

    Swauger has several drivers who commute from long distances. They need to know as early as possible to avoid an unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, trip.

    After their discussion, Johnson and Swauger host a conference call with other local superintendents to coordinate decisions if possible. Then, if conditions warrant a delay or closure, it’s time. By no later than 5:30 a.m., the alerts go out.

    Regardless of the decision, physical plant workers will also be up early, hard at work.

    The central maintenance and grounds staff uses seven plow trucks, three large tractors and a salt truck to clear parking lots. Building-based custodial staff clear sidewalks. If snow has fallen overnight, their shifts can start as early as 3 a.m., so they’ve been busy for a while by the time the district settles on a plan.

    Johnson said he and other district administrators realize that delays and closures can be difficult for families, wreaking havoc with schedules and forcing inconvenient adjustments. He noted that going to school on a cold January day is more valuable to student learning than attending school through mid/late June. That is, if the district lowers its threshold for cold temperature-related cancellations, every day cancelled is required by the state to be made up at a later date when classrooms lacking air conditioning become uncomfortable and families typically travel.

    “We want to try to do our best to stick to the district’s calendar,” he said. “However, if we’re not confident that we can transition our students safely from home to school, we’re going to make those decisions to postpone or close.”

    By Chris Rosenblum

Last Modified on December 14, 2023