School-closing debate season begins

Without peeking today, I’m guessing some news organization in Minnesota is preparing the “why didn’t _________ call off school today?” story, adding more pressure to weary school administrators to give in to the hype of TV weather. Having spent several days in “are you going to call off school?” hysteria, we are fully prepared to shift to “Why did/didn’t you call off school?” mode. It’s what we do. And, online traffic statistics suggest, you love it. You eat up stories about the weather no matter how much you say you don’t.

From evidence gathered via the BlogDog’s customary morning walk, I have learned that it’s cold. Ridiculously cold. The kind of cold in which bare skin freezes in nanoseconds, according to the meteorologists. And it’s a darn good thing I listened, too, because otherwise I’d probably have been out walking naked.

We can argue all day about the value of the wind chill number until we’re blue in the exposed skin, but there’s no doubting this advisory number now dictates how we live our lives. It’s instant drama in an industry that requires drama.

It’s -7 at 6:30 with an 8 mph wind. That’s about a -22 wind chill, which, for the record, stinks. No argument there. Does it feel twice as warm as the depth of last year’s polar vortex to you? If not, there’s the value of the wind chill number. Because it is. Twice as warm.

Wind chill is a helpful thing to know and some valuable data to remind you to dress warm (oh, that’s another thing: Honk, if someone in the media has told you to bundle up as if you couldn’t have figured that out on your own). But it shouldn’t be our master.


One TV meteorologist intoned a bit ago that the -29 “feels like” temperature reading displayed on the screen had already dropped to -33. But you probably felt that.

In the Star Tribune today, a young letter-writer gave Minneapolis the “what for” for not cancelling school yesterday.

When I read Monday morning that just 10 minutes of waiting in a windchill of minus 30 degrees can cause frostbite on exposed skin, and that MPS has stated that only a minus-35-degree windchill will warrant school closings, which was the case today, I worried not only for my nose, but also for my sister’s nose and for the other 35,354 noses in the school system.

Perhaps it would be prudent of MPS to consider a more reasonable cancellation policy, and to base school closings on student safety. Luckily, my bus arrived at my stop early on Monday, and I still have my nose to show for it!

It’s hard to imagine any school superintendent being able to withstand the weather panic in order to satiate the news media, but a few did, and we presume they did so knowing that (a) some kids don’t have warm clothes (b) the wait at the bus stop could kill them and (c) they weren’t going to master avoiding split infinitives today anyway.

Which is why Saint Paul’s decision to keep the schools open today made perfect sense. It also said if you didn’t want to try to make it to school, no problem. You can get your assignments from a classmate and still not fall behind. For those kids who could make it, many get the only hot meal of their day, and 7 hours of warmth.

“I want to offer SPPS families the opportunity to do what they know is best for their own children,” St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva said in a statement. “For some of our families, school is the safest place for their students during this cold weather.”

Even that flexibility wasn’t good enough for many people debating the decision on the district’s Facebook page this morning.

Look, it’s OK if we’re not as tough as Minnesotans of years past; they had to do without wiFi, so we’re even. We shouldn’t do stupid things to prove how tough we are.

But it’s going to be a long winter and while the news is slow and we need something to gin up interest, a little less weather hysteria and panic would be a breath of fresh air.

Everybody take a deep breath. And, for goodness sake, bundle up.

(Note: Now through Jan. 31, California Closets is collecting coats. Drop an item off at one of their 13 Twin Cities locations. Additionally, Ideal Credit Union generously accepts coat donations all year long for The Salvation Army. Find a location.)

Update 11:07 a.m.Project Reach is asking for 500 winter coats.

  • Jim G

    During one cold morning with a -25 wind chill, to get to school one of my middle male students walked a mile without a hat. When he arrived at school his ears were frost bitten so badly they blistered. I have never understood our state’s macho attitude towards dangerously cold weather. We make kids stand out in weather my dogs know better to get out of as quickly as possible.

    • From what I can tell most districts are NOT doing that. St. Paul is an urban district with a public transportation system that runs pretty well. The schools are relatively close and, as I indicated, the parents are being given the choice of whether to send the kids off to school or stay home.

      I’m not seeing the big deal here that matches the hysteria.

    • John

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but maybe he should have worn a hat.

      • Jim G

        Kids make decisions that adults characterize as poor. It is what it is, and it does not heal his frostbitten ears.

        • John

          Nope, it doesn’t. It didn’t heal mine either (which I earned as a kid by making a poor decision about what I should wear when I played outside at -10. I wore a hat, but it was inadequate for the temperature). Of course, closing school also doesn’t teach the kid proper behavior for what he should wear on his head when it’s cold.

  • Naomi

    This issue is more about socioeconomics than it is about wind chill. If we send kids to school, we send underprivileged children with inadequate winter gear to stand on dangerously cold bus stops. If we close schools, we deprive underprivileged kids of two meals and a warm school, and quite possibly keep them home alone all day because their parents can’t get off work. This debate needs to be about a whole lot more than just school closings. We need to figure out how to make sure all of our children have their basic needs met, regardless of the temperature.

    • Jack

      Completely agree. The diverse mix of students (and their areas of origin) is much more different from when I was a child growing up in rural Minnesota. Look at recent immigration patterns, most of the population is coming from warmer climates.

      I’d also like to think that we are getting smarter as a society as I get older – smarter in the sense that people aren’t thinking of winning that “winter badge of honor” by hanging out outside when the weather is bitterly cold.

      As adults, we owe it to the children to be the responsible party and watch out for their well-being.

      BTW – when it was this cold, I got a ride to school from a parent. Not everyone has means of personal transportation these days.

    • Maybe the immediate answer is to change the school year so kids are in school in the summer and out in the winter.

      • John

        Never gonna happen. Teachers love their summers off way too much for that to ever fly.

        • David

          I think the resort, entertainment, and cabin industry loves summers off even more than the teachers.

        • GenuinelyCurious

          Teachers… students, parents, the tourism industry, summer camps, summer sports, and people that depend on seasonal help. But no. Let’s make the teachers the boogeyman in this. Let’s bash ’em! Sharpen the pitchforks, light the torches!

          • John

            I didn’t exclude anyone from the equation, but in my opinion, the teacher’s union is the place that has the largest bargaining leverage, and is most likely to be vocally opposed to it, complete with threats of strike.

            I could also add that A/C would have to be retrofitted into hundreds of schools at costs of millions, which has its own challenges and folks who would be against (and some for) school in the summer.

          • GenuinelyCurious

            Then why did you single out teachers? Why not say “Never gonma happen, too many different groups would oppose it for a wide variety of reasons.”? Instead, you single out the teachers and talk about their love of summer… And follow-up by implying thst they’d oppose it with threats of a strike?

          • Reminder: NewsCut commenters are required to use real names

          • John

            Because I believe the teachers, via their union, would be the most vocally opposed, and would threaten to strike over the issue.

          • jen

            Yeah, then we would need heat index and UV light days for anything over 90 degrees because kids might get sunburned or dehydrated.

            I actually think this is a great idea. I’m a single parent and the one daycare open charges $ 15 per hour for snow days. And if I don’t work the kids don’t eat. Keep the school open and let parents keep their kids home if they don’t have the sense to bundle up.

      • BJ

        Didn’t Mpls have to close 2-3 days last year (or this year – age making memory fail me) in august because it was to hot?

    • Anna

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Naomi.

      I am retired from full-time nursing and now substitute teach in several Northeast Metro school districts. Many of the classroom teachers keep extra hats and gloves in their classrooms and the offices have extra snow pants for children who come from low-income families who can’t afford to buy new snow pants every year or who come from families of divorce with joint custody ( Some single parents are better at packing and dressing their children than others and that includes medications.)

      That being said, there is a finite number of supplies on hand and the kids have to give the winter clothing back at the end of the school day.

      The teachers also keep extra snacks for the underprivileged kids as well so they don’t feel left out when snack time comes around for the lower grades.

      My bank has a winter clothing drive every year starting in November. You can donate new or gently used winter clothing at any of their locations.

      “Talk is cheap and time is money.” I’m low income myself but I do what I can within my budget.

      Others need to do the same.

      • Kassie

        Adding on to this, I see my very upper middle class friends talk about how their kids lose their hats and mittens multiple times a year. I assume this happens to poor families to, and with less ability to replace them over and over. Kids also grow, so the jacket you bought them in October may not fit them in January. Most of the places poor families can get free coats only have them in the late fall and only give them to families that have proper documentation of identity and poverty. Also, they only give the coats out once, and if the adults happen to be working at that time, they can’t get one.

    • Eric Hall

      So if the concern is socioeconomic status, how do you suppose missing a day of work or scrambling to find child care and pay for it affects those in that same lower socioeconomic status? My family is doing fine, and yet missing a day of work can be a real hardship for us…and backup care costs just about as much as a day of work for me — if I can get them in at all.

    • Jessica

      Agree completely. This is a social issue, not an education issue, and it goes beyond cold weather. We need a better safety net for children.

  • Gary F

    St Paul is not preparing it’s students for the real world.

  • Maura

    I seem to recall during all the polar vortex madness last year, that when schools closed they sent teams of staff out driving the neighborhoods to look for kids at bus stops. They picked up several. For whatever reason parents did not get the news that school had been closed. I think St. Paul makes the right call by staying open. Let the parents (who have multiple transportation choices) whine on social media.

    I’m about to bundle up my kids for the bus stop. Think Randy in Christmas Story.

  • Matt

    We didn’t have these “to-close-or-not-to-close” debates and accompanying hysteria 25 years ago. Why now?

    • Dave

      We sure did in my hometown 25 years ago. It was -22 one morning in December 1989. School district refused to close the schools. People were so mad that the district closed schools the next day even though it wasn’t as cold.

    • jon

      Because as I’ve heard over and over again from parents today, kids were tougher back then.
      Why they didn’t have to outlaw sledding because of liability issues cause kids were tougher back then.

      Cause this is all of the kids fault, and we all need to accept that.
      Sledding isn’t outlawed because parents who are saying that kids were tougher back then are more litigious than their parents were.
      Schools aren’t being closed differently with more defined policies because parents are more litigious than they were in years gone by… it’s because kids these days are terrible excuses for mini human beings who need to toughen up!

      Though I don’t have kids, and I recall back in my day, the decision to close school or not was made in the morning, before school opened, not the night before, I guess school officials were tougher back then too, and were able to get up before 6 am to check the weather… They were probably just more fearless back then too, not afraid of a little ol’ lawsuit that would bankrupt the school…

      The lesson to be learned here is that everything was better in the past, except the weather, and the amount of up-hill walking that it took to get to school those things were worse… but People back during my childhood certainly better than people now though murder rates have subsided greatly since I was a kid, but screw facts, people were just better in the past.

      (this post can easily be adapted to support the palio diet if needed.)

  • Gary F

    You know, the weather mania hype machine called the local media had today ginned up to be -15 below and colder. But it was only -9 in Saint Paul at 6:30 this morning.

    There is a reason I don’t watch the nightly local news anymore and turn the radio off when the weather hysteria comes on the radio.

    The Weatherbug app on my phone has way, way less hype and hysteria.

  • David

    Tom Crann had a great conversation with a street outreach worker in Duluth Monday discussing the homeless proplem and the challenges they have in this weather.
    I think we as a society would be better off if the amount of energy spent on the “are you going to call off school?/Why did/didn’t you call off school?” debate/hysterics was spent on homelessness in this state (which is a year round problem).

    • Tim Pawlenty promised to end homelessness in Minnesota by 2010. Obviously, he — we — didn’t. What in the opinion of the assembled, prevents this from being solved?

      • Anna

        Remember Mitt Romney’s miked comment about the 47%?

        I think that explains it in the nutshell. The majority of Americans who could do something simply don’t care anymore. I’ve got mine why should I care about you?

        Justice and beneficence are rapidly disappearing from the social landscape.

      • David

        Unfortuantely I don’t know. I got really sad listening to the conversation Tom was having. I think part of it is mental illness related, partially job related, partially domestic violence related, partially crappy situations. I don’t know even know how to help. This is something I will try to become more familiar with.

  • KTN

    If they closed the schools in International Falls every time it got cold, you wouldn’t graduate from high school till you were 30.

    • Anna

      LOL. Very astute observation. You guys probably think we’re a bunch of ninnies down here in the southern half of the state.

  • Jessica

    The St. Paul decision is ridiculous. Why not just come out and say school is available as a refuge for children who will not be fed or supervised or warm at home? No education is going to take place today. And now, a bus is stranded with cold kids. Nice work, SPPS.

    • Why do you think there won’t be any education? Is this something you know or something you think?

  • MsJ

    As a teacher at a school that has a large free and reduced lunch population in St. Paul, I don’t mind that we didn’t cancel. However, very few students showed up to school today. Most classes averaged 3-8 students therefore it isn’t fair to move on with the curriculum with so many students missing. Teachers hardly get a chance to work collaboratively together or receive professional development during the school year. If the day is going to be a wash because of the lack of students I would prefer to report to work and use the time to collaborate and learn about best practices.

    • Jeff C.

      Seems like a great day to give some extra attention to the kids who did show up. When else do you have the luxury of being able to give so much individual attention to some students? As a parent who sent their kids to school, I hope you don’t make this day be a wash by showing movies or just allowing the kids to play on their own while you read Newscut. Work on a special project or do something fun, creative and educational. Have fun with them! 🙂

      • MsJ

        Thanks Jeff, that is what most teachers are doing for the most part. The point I’m trying to make is probably more systemic then anything else about professional development of the teacher…

        I wish that school was not an option today, that is was a regular day so that more students would come to school. The excused absence to me inadvertently says it’s okay not to come to school. I know this isn’t the intent but it is frustrating to have so many students absent when there is so much to cover in the curriculum.

        • Jeff C.

          Just curious….What do you think is the real reason kids are absent? Because it was too dangerous to go to school so they stayed home? Because they could get a free day-off? Something else? Also, what grade do you teach?

          • MsJ

            Honestly Jeff, I don’t know. Perhaps our parents were nervous that their child would be standing at the bus for too long today (often buses run late in St. Paul) and they aren’t able to drive their child to school.

          • Walked through the STP skyway today and was stuck by how many young people are walking around. So somewhere in the middle of all of this discussion are the people who (a) didn’t go to school and (b) didn’t stay home.

            Tomorrow’s victims.

  • Brian

    “Twice as warm”
    Pedantry alert: You can’t say a temperature is “x as warm” unless your temperature scale starts at absolute zero. For example, you may say 2 degrees F is twice as warm as 1 degree F, but you wouldn’t say that about the same temperatures measured in C (-16.67 and -17.22 respectively). So if you want to talk about the ratios of temperatures you have to use Kelvin (or the much less used Rankine).

    • This is why I love the NewsCut audience.

      • OK, let’s adjust this. -22 wind chill is -30 celsisus. -50 (what we had last year) is -46 Celsius.

        -30C is 243 Kelvin.
        -46C is 227 Kelvin

        Wait! How are we supposed to make it sound cold when we’re using such high numbers?

        • jon

          I thought that is why we lived in a state where we could just say the windchill is -40 so many days of the year… no need to convert between C and F (on your own for K and R though)

    • Eric Hall

      I didn’t want to say anything….I’m glad you did 🙂

  • Jeff C.

    As a parent with kids in the SPPS system, I remember scrambling to find a place for my kids to go for the day when school was canceled last year because of the cold. The school’s Facebook site was buzzing with ideas. Friends were emailing and calling each other to find ways for families to help each other by having parents take turns taking half-days off from work to be with kids from other families. None of that happened this year. Nobody is complaining on the school’s Facebook page. Nobody emailed or called me to see if my kids needed a place to go or if their kids could stay with mine. Nothing. What’s different? Schools are open, but optional. My prediction is that most of the kids at my kid’s school (a magnet school that draws kids from all over St. Paul and that has 45.4% of the kids getting free or reduced-price lunch) will be in class and that learning will continue. I don’t know of anyone who is keeping their child home. I am by no means a fan of Superintendent Silva and feel that she has made many bad decisions, but I think this one was the perfect one. The kids who can get to school safely can get to school. The kids who can’t don’t have to go and they won’t be punished. I’m sure way more learning will happen today than happened on the last day of school last year – the Monday that they tacked onto the calendar to make up for the days missed for cold last year.

  • CJ

    I’m “News Cut” famous, but it is a dubious honor because it seems my constructive criticism on the issue of metro district policy alignment is read as a complaint from one of the “never-satisfieds”. I still contend that if school districts want to use hard-and-fast numbers in their winter weather policies, it is in the best interests of everyone–staff, students, and families–that they are aligned with their neighbor districts. It’s still a matter of trying to make objective something that is inherently subjective, but it gets us closer to the illusion of objectivity if the numbers match.

    • Bark

      I really doubt that “alignment” on school closings is useful in any real sense. Does the fact that St Paul and Mpls close at different (and very close!) criteria have *any* affect? I’m an SPPS dad, and whether Mpls has school or not doesn’t affect my family even in the slightest. It’s interesting, but not relevant.

      I, for one, really like that they are slightly different. It gives us a chance to compare the two approaches. Eventually, I think (hope?) some of these numbers will converge on a useful guidelines. Of course the difference is only 5 degrees of wind chill, which as far as I can tell is less than the margin of error of wind chill calculations.

      So here’s a thought: it’s all based on transportation & safety. Nothing else. If the kids can be reliably picked up within a safe amount of time, school’s on! If the buses often run a half hour late, then any condition which it’s not safe to stand around outside for a half hour should close the school for the day. Since transportation providers and conditions differ between school districts, you cannot have a uniform set of weather conditions to decide school closings across the state or even metro. It’s only part of the question.

  • Jeff C.

    Update – 18,000 of 39,000 kids were in school today in SPPS schools.

    • I wonder what the ratio is for the after school sports programs.

      • John

        When I was a boy (cue old timey music), my school’s policy was that if you didn’t show up for class, you were ineligible for extra-curricular activities that day.

        We always called it the “too sick to learn, then to sick for sports” policy.

    • I saw a tweet from a parent to the superintendent that said her daughter was just shown movies during the day.

      That outrageous and a clear dereliction of duty. The kids show up for school. Your job is to teach them.

      • Bark

        Makes you wonder which kids are actually staying home. Do parents who don’t work outside the home just think they should just as well keep everyone home? If they think that all you get at school is movies and maybe the flu then maybe that’s a decent choice. Is there an excuse to stay home if you are normally driven to school?

        I find it difficult to imagine taking a day off work when my kids could be at school since I can get them there easily. Well, if the absence is excused then maybe the older kids just ditch. Should there be a parents’ note excusing the absence on days like today?