Saturday, June 3, 2023

Schools on the Peninsula closed for snow Friday. Here’s how officials came to the decision

On Friday, divisions across Hampton Roads cancelled school in preparation for winter weather. Here's how they made their decisions. (WYDaily/Flickr)
On Friday, divisions across Hampton Roads cancelled school in preparation for winter weather. Here’s how they made their decisions. (WYDaily/Flickr)

As many were starting their day Thursday morning, the National Weather Service in Wakefield issued a winter storm warning with the prediction of rain and snow mix and freezing temperatures overnight and into Friday morning.

And as a result of the forecast, school districts including Williamsburg-James City County, York County, Newport News, and Hampton City Schools made the decision to cancel classes for the day rather than call for a two-hour delay in start times.

Here’s how administrators said they came to the decision to make the call to cancel rather than delay start times.

Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools

“Decisions to close or delay school are never made without careful consideration,” Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC, wrote in an email.

She said in the event of inclement weather, safety for all students and staff are the main concern.

When deciding whether to start school on a two-hour delay or cancel the day altogether, Cox said the superintendent has to take multiple factors into consideration. This includes bus travel, the safety of students who walk to school and their safety when waiting at the bus stop, safety of teens who drive to school and the safety of the roads for staff who are driving to work.

In Friday’s case, the operations staff for WJCC met with emergency managers from both the city of Williamsburg and James City County to prepare for the incoming weather.

Division staff kept a close eye on weather reports from the local media and the National Weather Service.

Staff analyzed projected snow accumulations from those reports and the potential for ice on the streets. They also considered hourly temperatures of when it would be above freezing and the timing of the storm in conjunction with normal operations for school hours.

Cox said snow began falling Thursday afternoon and staff considered projections for the storm, which predicted the snow to continue through 10 to 11 p.m. In addition, Friday temperatures were not expected to reach above freezing before 8:30 a.m., which is when buses would’ve been on the road if there had been a two-hour delay.

Considering those conditions, the superintendent made the decision to close schools on Friday and shared a message with families and staff on Thursday night to help them make any necessary childcare arrangements.

In terms of childcare, Cox said the division does not provide resources for parents during snow days.

“That’s a family decision rather than school resource,” she said.

But the division does try to make calls on delays and closings in a timely manner so parents can plan ahead for childcare. Cox said in general, decisions are made depending on the storm but they try to give as much advance notice as possible.

With recent storms, she said parents may have noticed that the division has been making calls as soon as possible based on information available. However, the track and course of storms can often change and these delay and closure decisions have to be updated.

For some storms the division will send out crews early in the morning to monitor the safety of the roads. This is specifically if the division has called for a two-hour delay the night before, Cox said. Once crews have monitored the roadways, the division tries to send updates on closures and delays before 6 a.m.

While those decisions can change based on weather conditions to increase the amount of delays or time-off for the division, Cox said decisions are never reversed. If the division calls for a two-hour delay or closure, they will not reverse the decision if the weather isn’t as dangerous as anticipated.

“We appreciate that our parents and staff understand how unpredictable the weather can be and are flexible,” Cox said. “We want them to understand safety is our top priority.”

York County School Division

Weather related decisions are made based on student and staff safety, Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the district, wrote in an email.

“Determining whether to close or delay school opening due to inclement weather is one of the most difficult and complex decisions a school division makes,” according to the division’s website.

When monitoring inclement weather, YCSD staff have to analyze the amount and type of predicted precipitation, the timing in conjunction with the school day and the status of severe weather alerts.

There is also a YCSD road assessment team that does a visual inspection of the roads.

Before the snow hit Thursday, Goff said staff evaluated the conditions and forecasts in coordination with emergency management staff in various localities.

During that time, early evening predictions called for temperatures to remain below freezing past 8 a.m. Friday which is when buses would’ve been on the road if there had been a two-hour delay.

The division decided to announce the closure on Thursday at 8 p.m. so families could have time to prepare.

According to the division website, YCSD staff try to make decisions on delays and closures no later that 5:30 a.m. Depending on the tracking of the story, the division will try to make a decision on delays and closures the day before so families can plan for childcare.

Hampton City Schools

When snow started to fall Thursday night, Kellie Goral, a spokeswoman for Hampton City Schools, said administrators made the decision to close based on the “continued threat of severe weather overnight.” 

Temperatures were expected to drop into the low teens early Friday morning, according to a forecast on Thursday from NWS Meteorologist Ryan Rogers, with the possibility of causing the rain and snow that had already fallen to freeze creating hazardous roadways. 

Goral said the timing of the winter storm, the drop in temperature, and the potential for hazardous roads all went into the superintendent’s decision to close schools in Hampton rather than delaying start times. 

“Each weather event is different. Decisions on delaying or closing the school division are made after closely monitoring forecasts (e.g. watches, warnings), receiving information from city emergency services, and our own survey of all areas of the city. Then the best decision is made for the school division,” she wrote in an email. 

Goral referenced a “Weather Delays and Closings” video from Hampton City Schools’ YouTube page which noted the decision to cancel or delay class start times typically comes before 5 a.m. the day of and after transportation staff members drive the roads and report conditions to the school district’s chief operations officer. 

Maintenance and operations staff reports on power outages or weather damage to each school’s building are also included in the superintendent’s final decision. 

With a winter weather warning in full effect and conditions expected to worsen overnight, the call for Hampton City Schools to close Friday came on Thursday before 9 p.m. 

Newport News Public Schools

Michelle Price, spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools, said the district’s decision to cancel classes on Friday was because of the hazardous roadway conditions.

“The information that we had from the National Weather Service indicated that the roads were going to be slick and icy during the early morning commute,” she said.

She said the primary focus is on student and staff safety when it comes to completely closing the school.

When asked how the division plans to make up the snow day, Price said an inclement weather date was built into the calendar and at this point, they already have enough school instructional hours.

“Our instruction hours exceed the school calendar,” she said, referring the Virginia Department of Education requirements, which states a school district must have a minimum of 180 days or 990 hours of instruction.

The district currently has 181 days.

WYDaily multimedia reporters Alexa Doiron, Lucretia Cunningham and Julia Marsigliano contributed to this report.


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