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Whether and when to close schools is tough call even for experienced districts

There's always griping about how the south overreacts to snow, while districts farther north soldier through bad weather. But deciding whether and when to close schools is an imprecise science even in areas accustomed to wintry weather, as shown today in Montgomery County in Maryland.

Parents there were not happy when a two-hour delay turned into a closure. While Atlanta gets an average 2.9 inches of snowfall a year, Montgomery County sees 17.1 inches. Initially,  Montgomery County Public Schools announced a two-hour delay related to snow, but it changed course and closed schools around 7:30 a.m. due to road conditions.

Parents blasted the decision on social media:

•Making the call this late in the morning is incredibly inconvenient for working parents.

•Huh? You ever get the feeling that the person making this call has their iPhone in one hand and a remote control with Netflix loaded up in the other?

•Less than a half an inch of snow and the county closes the school?  I think it’s a total outrage and I believe you put a lot of parents out with next-to-no notice.

•This is complete nonsense. There is no justification for cancelling school and I'm extremely upset at some of these parents who want to coddle their kids.

Here is the response from Superintendent Jack R. Smith:

January 17, 2018

Dear MCPS Community,

I am writing to share the circumstances that caused us to close schools for students after initially announcing a two-hour delay this morning.  Typically, we are able to make a decision about school closure by 5:00 a.m.  Occasionally, we announce a two-hour delay by 5:00 a.m. with a note that we are still assessing weather conditions to determine if a closure is warranted. Updates with any changes to a decision are usually communicated by 7:00 a.m.  Today, we did not do that, as all weather forecasts pointed to snow tapering off early in the day with little snow accumulation.  Most school districts in the region, including MCPS, therefore announced a two-hour delay.

However, despite this relatively minor weather event, the roads in many parts of the county became unsafe for school transportation after the two-hour delay was announced.  This turned out to be the case in a number of neighboring jurisdictions as well.  Although the snow covering was thin, the wet snow combined with temperatures below freezing made for hazardous conditions.  While some roads were in fine shape, a significant portion of the roads in Montgomery County, particularly side streets, were not ready for school buses.

We transport approximately 100,000 students each day on more than 1,300 school buses, and safety is our first priority.  In addition, we have a large number of students who drive, and we must keep this in mind.  As we continued to assess the situation, there was no indication that additional treatment would improve road conditions before school buses, student drivers, and students walking to schools and bus stops would be on the roads.  As a result, we made the difficult decision to close schools for student safety.

We know the importance of making an announcement for school closure as early as possible, and I regret that today we were not able to make this decision earlier.  We always strive to maximize learning time and minimize delays and closures, while at the same time announcing these decisions in a timeframe that is least disruptive to our families and community.

I apologize for any inconvenience our later announcement caused today, and thank you for your understanding and flexibility as we focused on ensuring the safety of our students.


Jack R. Smith, Ph.D.

Superintendent of Schools

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.