The Loneliness of the Weather Decision
Snow is beautiful, as long as it is in a Currier & Ives print. Other than that, I don’t need it. Besides engendering a shoveling exercise and limiting my street exercise, it forces a decision matrix: open or close the school?
The decision would be easy if only the weather cooperated. For instance, if it snowed all morning on Sunday but the roads throughout the county were dry by nightfall (open on time), or if the snow started with a fury at 3:30 AM on a Tuesday and dropped a foot on the ground by 7 PM (close the next day). But the weather rarely takes into account the anxieties of the heads of private schools with limited resources to assess conditions beyond those provided by The Weather Channel.
This anxiety does not revolve around making a decision: heads of schools make them several times a day. I try to align the interests of all the concerned parties and find the answer in the shaded area formed by overlapping circles. Unfortunately, the area of overlap in a weather decision is often either very small or non-existent.
The “Weather Decision” can take one of three simple forms: “open”, “close” or “delay open.” But the competing factors pushing for these answers diverge sharply.
First—and most important—is safety. Opening the school when road conditions are less than ideal places parents, teachers, and students in jeopardy. The risk of a serious accident—heaven forbid a fatality!—outweighs any value gained by opening the school on any particular day. In the South the risk of the dangerous road is compounded by other drivers who have little experience negotiate roads in wintry conditions. We don’t have snow removal equipment. In the far corners of Kershaw County the risk is compounded because schools have larger service areas, meaning more varied terrain with correspondingly varied road conditions.
Second is disruption. By this I mean disruption to working parents. In past years I have closed the school, following the lead of the school district, only to stand on my porch the next morning looking at a dry road and a thermometer reading 50°F. Employers are not nearly as sensitive to road conditions as school administrators, so parents took a day off to stay with children because I made the wrong call. Having written this, the local superintendent did not make the wrong call. He would have had to send buses to the remote corners of the county at 4 AM, when the roads were likely still to be treacherous. In addition, if a student in a traditional classroom missed a day, he missed the lecture, workshop, or whatever other activity his classmates experienced. Since Montessori students work individually, they would suffer no such loss.
Some years ago a powerful snowstorm came through on a Monday, beginning about 4 AM. I could have closed the school Sunday evening based on the forecast of 95 percent chance of serious snow before dawn. But because of the embarrassing experience on my porch I waited. I went to the porch at 4 AM, confirmed the forecast, and began the school closing ritual. Accumulation at 4 AM meant slick roads at 8 AM.
During the day snow fell until after noon, and the ground was covered by—OK, I admit it—a beautiful blanket 6 inches deep. The high temperature that day was 33°F. So on Monday evening I exercised the same decision process. I decided that if the roads were clear at dusk no matter how cold it got over night we could still open the school at the regular time on Tuesday. Since I could see they were not clear from my porch, I knew I had to close the school again.
Tuesday the sky was overcast and the high temperature hovered between 32°F and 34°F. But by the end of the day the roads were mostly clear. The forecast was for sun and highs near 40°F. Using the same logic for the previous end-of-day decision, I determined that the conditions were different from those of the previous evening: I could anticipate that while at 8 AM the cold night would re-freeze any snow melting at dusk, by 10 AM the warmer weather would make most of the roads passable. As a result, we delayed opening by two hours.
The factor in the decision was very simple: road conditions at school opening. Anticipating them was difficult only on the first day, when I could not predict when the snow would fall. Thus, setting my alarm for 4 AM was the only way to be relatively sure I would have reliable information. The decision the following two days were easier because I could see the roads—at least those I identified as typical and ventured out to inspect—at dusk. Knowing the temperature was freezing at dusk (the temperature does not often rise at night in spite of forecasts to the contrary) again gave me relatively solid information and the confidence to make a good decision.
Remembering the nature of the Montessori Method frees the process from constraints imposed on traditional schools. And getting the word out as soon as possible makes it all work.