Whether waiting for a call from school, watching WMUR to see your school’s name pop up on the cancellation list, or simply clicking refresh over and over in Outlook on a snowy morning, students and parents alike have experienced the anticipation of a snow day. But what goes into the decision we all await whenever there’s snow in the forecast?
Every time a winter weather event shows up in the forecast, Dr. Jim Morse, the superintendent of the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD), is faced with the decision of whether the district will have school. Making that decision, although it may seem as easy as looking outside to see if it’s snowing, has become increasingly complex in the past few years. With the introduction of remote learning as a possible storm response, paired with Morse seeing an increase in the frequency of ice and sleet in the forecasts of our New England winters, there’s more than meets the eye when deciding whether school is cancelled.
Morse’s decision-making process begins well before the day of a storm. Morse follows forecast information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) office in Grey, Maine. They serve all of New England, providing reliable weather forecast information for the entire region.
However, forecast information can be more variable the further in the future a storm is. “You have to start paying attention early on. One time they might say there’s going to be twelve inches of snow. […] The next time it’s gonna be a dusting. The next time it’s gonna be a foot and a half,” says Morse. But, as the storm nears, the information from the NWS becomes more accurate, more consistent, and thus more reliable for Morse to consider.
Additionally, as a storm gets closer, Morse will converse with other superintendents in the Seacoast region to see what they’re thinking of a storm, although each superintendent still makes their own decision. The Department of Education in New Hampshire also holds a meeting with superintendents around the state, as well as other public officials involved in education and weather forecasting, before major weather events to brief superintendents on the event in advance.
Sometimes Morse can make a decision the night before a storm is supposed to arrive. “If I make a decision the night before, there’s an absolute, one-hundred percent chance that we’re going to be buried. However, most of the time, it’s not that easy.”
But, because of the variability of weather forecasting, even one-hundred percent certainty can change overnight. “The weather is a prediction, and not a necessarily accurate prediction. It’s based on a whole host of things that are more complicated than what you and I can deal with—wind, temperature, moisture, all that kind of stuff—and I’m relying on the weatherman, in the end, just like everybody else.”
The earlier the call, the more time the ORCSD community has to adjust to the decision. Teachers, students, parents, administrators, and everyone else alike in the district find out at the same time when Morse makes a call. “If I can give clear, clear decisions, even though people will be irritated with me in the moment, it gives them time to adjust. […] Parents want that kind of notice, and, quite frankly, I think that students want that kind of notice, too.”
So, while students are still sound asleep, Morse wakes up at 4:30am on possible snow days and begins talking with Lisa Huppe, the ORCSD’s director of transportation, and other local superintendents to help inform his decision.
Because each storm is different, there is no strict timetable for Morse’s decision, but he still tries to make his final decision by 5am. “I’m trying to save bus drivers from coming in and starting their buses and cleaning them off, and, if I can make it by 5am, […] nobody is coming to school.”
Morse often drives on the roads in the ORCSD community early in the morning to help make his decision, as does Huppe. Morse lives on Durham and Madbury side of the district, and Huppe lives on the Lee and Barrington side, allowing the two of them to test roads in every town served by the ORCSD before Morse makes a decision. “I’ve actually tested roads for other superintendents who don’t live in the area but are wondering whether they should call [off] school,” he says.
Last-minute changes can happen even when Morse’s decision is made early in the morning. Morse’s call at 5am may not be the right one by 9am, and that situation can be inconvenient or even upsetting for those in the ORCSD community. Additionally, once ORCSD busses head out on their routes, changing a call becomes much harder, making a change in weather even more problematic. “For the most part, people get it, because what I’m really trying to do is make sure that you’re all safe. So, if I make a ‘wrong’ decision, and the sun is shining at 9am, then, you know, the way I look at it is it was the right decision at the time. […] I think, ‘well, at 4:30, when you made the decision, was it the right decision?’ Yeah, it was at 4:30,” says Morse.
The opposite can happen, too. “If a delayed start turns into a complete cancellation, that’s never popular either. You have to understand that the parents are trying to figure out how to get to work,” says Morse. “[If] all of the sudden the dusting has turned into a nor’easter, parents really get mad at me about that, but there’s really not much I can do if the weather changes dramatically other than say, ‘we’re out.’”
In recent years, Morse says “we’re experiencing more ice events, where ten years ago we were experiencing more snow events.” During ice events, road conditions are worse than a normal snow day. “I just can’t put you guys on the roads. Students, staff, or bus drivers. It’s an invitation for disaster.”
Normally, snow days allow students, especially those in younger grades, to go have fun in the snow instead of doing schoolwork. However, a snow day called because of an ice event doesn’t allow for that. The sleet and freezing rain that are characteristic of ice events in recent years are obviously not enjoyable conditions to have outside, especially compared to snow, so students and their families are stuck inside.
With the introduction of remote learning in recent years, though, Morse can call a remote day instead of a snow day in the case of an ice event. This allows students, who would already be stuck inside at home, to attend class despite the weather.
Morse enjoys having the ability to choose between a snow day and a remote day depending on the storm, rather than always defaulting to one or the other. This flexibility helps save snow days for snowstorms, where students and their families have the option to go out and enjoy the snow, and helps prevent the end of the school year from being pushed later by weather cancellations.
After the use of remote learning through Covid, teachers are prepared to switch to remote when needed. This helped to eliminate any complications for faculty going remote in the result of a snow day, since most preparation, like posting work for students on Schoology or setting up Microsoft Teams meetings, takes place days in advance—sometimes even weeks or months.
However, this year Morse hasn’t been able to call many remote days, since many of “the storms that have come in [have been] devastating. They knocked out power, and they shut down roads, and trees were falling down all over.” Remote learning doesn’t work if students can’t connect to the internet.
With everything that goes into making a call, the decision is never easy. Morse says that, with every storm, “it’s one of the hardest decisions I have to make […] because so many people are impacted by the decision.” So, the next time you wake up to an email in Outlook giving you a snowy break from school, it may not have been the ‘right’ call, but it was still thoughtfully made with safety in mind.
Image from OpenSnow