The best kind of snow day is when you can actually play in the snow.
Last week provided a miserable welcome to the new semester. Snow, high winds, and bitter cold meant that the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette was in session for only 20 out of a possible 40 hours over four days. Our staff did its best to maintain communication with the families and those families were very understanding. There were, however, a few questions about how we respond to Indiana’s volatile winter weather at MSGL.
The question of the week was “If the weather continues like this, can we expect to continue having so many delays and closures?” The short answer is, "yes." But how are decisions about school delays made? That's a longer answer.
I would have thought this to be a very elementary understanding. Doesn't everyone know when it's too dangerous to take the kids to school? But when I found myself working as MSGL's "Weather Delay Intern" last week, I discovered that many factors contribute to a closing or delay, and they are not always obvious to everyone.
First, there are no hard and fast rules for determining if conditions are too dangerous for school. Everything depends on timing. Temperatures below -12F are a general cut-off if people are going to be outside for more than a few minutes. However, if the roads are clear and the temperatures are on the rise at 8 a.m., then -12F might be acceptable at arrival. High winds could change that, of course. Roads that are clear now may not be clear when morning classes dismiss. Or they might be passable in town, but dangerous out in the country. And all of this has to be considered over the course of our 10-hour day.
MSGL can't follow the determinations of local school districts because they have special considerations - such as bus transportation and a large number of students who walk to school. Generally, MSGL can be in session more frequently than the public schools.
The weather is just one component of a weather-related school delay. Preparation of facilities and the safety of our staff are two others. And our families themselves are an important consideration.
Facilities: The parking lot and sidewalks must be clear of snow and ice before staff and families arrive. Our school is a small, not-for-profit, parent-owned school. A small core of people manage the day-to-day operations of the school and the needs of over 500 people. This is why we rely on a private company to clear the parking lot, sidewalks, and steps of snow and ice. That company serves several other businesses each day AND it needs two hours to clear MSGL after a snow or ice event. As an example, if the snow stops falling at 6 a.m. on a school day and we are third on the list for snow removal, school cannot open at 7:30. The ability of our snow removal contractor to clear our lot and paths before we arrive is a major determinant of our start time.
Cultural Considerations: Another little-known factor is our region's cultural relationship with winter weather. As one parent said, "I grew up in Vermont. We don't cancel school there." Indiana's threshold for tolerating winter weather might be a bit lower than other cold places because we don't see as many snowy days and our street departments are not equipped for a large quantity of snow on a regular basis. And because the majority of the West Lafayette community is made up of faculty or students from Purdue University, we also have a lot of families who come from places with absolutely no snow, ice, or cold temperatures. It can take these families a few snowy days to get the hang of dressing for the weather and driving in it. We are more comfortable with snow than Los Angeles, but less comfortable than Montpelier - and that makes a difference in how we respond to it.
Staff: Teachers and staff need to be able to travel safely and arrive at school before the children. Our staff are dedicated to their jobs and they want to be at school. While it’s easy to imagine teachers being excited to have a snow day, the reality is that the majority of our teachers have school-aged children of their own. Just like MSGL families, the teachers have to scramble to get their children safely to school in case of a delay or to arrange other care if public schools cancel and MSGL is in session.
Many of our staff live outside of city limits and travel county roads to get to work, so their ability to arrive safely is always a top priority. Delaying the start of school allows them to get out of their driveways and travel potentially hazardous roads in daylight so they can be here when the families arrive. We could call on substitute teachers to work for staff who cannot make it to school, but our substitute teachers are also home with their children on these days. Operating without adequate staff is not an option so we need to be sure all of our teachers can get to school.
Forecasted weather: Conditions throughout the day, and not just at arrival, need to be considered to determine closures and delays. The weather may be clear at morning arrival, but if incoming snow and/or ice and wind threaten later in the day, staff and children could become stranded at school or out on the roads. The administration must take into account the anticipated timing of dangerous weather and sometimes cancel classes in advance of this weather (even if that bad weather never fully materializes.)
Our early arrival and after school programs are the first to be cancelled because MSGL is a school and not a daycare facility. We do offer before and after-care programs that can function as full-day care for families, but our primary function is that of a school. This means being open during class time from 8:30 - 3:00 takes priority over being open before and after class.
We understand that it is frustrating to wake up to a school delay or cancellation. Our Montessori parents have jobs, commitments, and plans and not being able to leave their children in our care causes real problems for them. That being said, MSGL is a parent-owned school. We were started by parents over 40 years ago and all current MSGL families are the current owners of the school. If you are reading this and you have children enrolled at our school, you are one of the owners of the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette. With that ownership, come some responsibilities.
What can MSGL families do to help?
1. Stay informed - before school and during the day. We announce delays, cancellations, and early dismissals through many different sources. Here is a listing.
2. Offer help, if you can. If you have some time after bringing your child to school on a wintry day, you might:
If possible, we would prefer to be able to control the climate and prepare the outdoor environment as carefully as we prepare our students’ learning environments. But the realities of winter weather require our staff and families to be vigilant, flexible, and patient with weather events - and the timing of those events - over which we have no control.
And if you, like me, are curious how the large, public school districts determine delays, this video from Louisville, KY is interesting.
Thanks for reading, ~Heather
The s-word is in our forecast this week. I don't know anyone who is happy about the October SNOW except for my allergy-suffering friends. With the snow come cold temperatures and at MSGL we play outside year-round, so it's important for children to have warm and practical clothing to wear every day. For the past 12 years I greeted the children on the playground at 8:30 am, snow or shine. To help you prepare for this week and the next six months (it hurts me to say that), I have compiled for you:
Miss Heather's Top 10 List for Child Comfort and Parent Happiness: Winter Edition
1. Check the forecast. Every class - Toddler through Elementary - goes outside when the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Check the weather forecast each day before leaving the house to make sure your child will have the appropriate cold-weather gear for that day.
2. Go with the low. Consider the time of day your child will be outside. The forecast may call for a high temp. of 63 degrees, but the temperature at 8:30 am might only be in the 40's. Some classes start outside, some go out at 10:15, some at 11:00. The afternoon and Elementary classes go out at varying times throughout the week. Provide clothing for the day's low temperature and your child should be well-prepared.
3. Layer, layer, layer. Imagine your child as a cute, rosy-cheeked onion and help her dress in layers. Being hot and sweaty outside in the cold is just as uncomfortable as shivering. If your child can take off a sweater or push back her hood and unzip her coat, she will be able to regulate her body temperature and still enjoy the time outside.
4. Listen to your child. Trust your child to make decisions about his comfort. The only way we can learn if we are too cold is if we are allowed to feel the cold. If your child doesn't want to wear his gloves, don't sweat it. Make sure he knows his gloves are in his locker and that he can go get them if he gets cold. The same goes for his snow pants and his bulky winter coat. An active child dressed in layers with warm shoes and a hat can generally enjoy himself outside without danger of getting too cold, even in winter. If your child is listening to his body instead of chafing under a "mitten mandate" he is more likely to develop a true sense of how to dress for the weather. My friend "Z" always told his dad he didn't want to wear his coat or his snow pants or his gloves, but 10 minutes after dad left, Z would ask to go get them.
5. Start a discussion. Talk with your child about the day's weather and how to dress. Remember that the ultimate goals are safety and independence. You might say something like, "It's 30 degrees Fahrenheit. You definitely need to wear something on your hands, but you can choose if you wear your Spiderman gloves or the mittens Grandma made for you." Or try, "It's going to be 45 degrees when you go outside today. What should you pack for school?" Young children can learn to speak three languages at once. They can also learn to make clothing choices based on the outdoor temperature.
6. Get a move-on. Remember that your child is most likely playing actively outside. We might feel very cold walking from the car to the school door in a suit or a skirt and heels, but a child riding a balance bike for 10 minutes heats up very quickly.
7. Consider cold pants. Snow pants or snow suits are essential when there is snow on the ground, but some children (and some preschool teachers) like to wear them as soon as they can see their breath outside. Think of them as "cold pants" and let your child keep them in his locker from October through April.
8. Label everything. Speaking of lockers, our lockers are small. When two children share a locker it's nearly impossible to fit snow pants, coats, book bags and lunch boxes inside. PLEASE make sure every article of clothing you send to school has your child's name or your family's last name written on it where it's easy to read. All black snow pants and all Spiderman gloves look the same when there are 24 children getting dressed in the hallway. If you forget, your child's teacher will be happy to loan you a Sharpie and some masking tape.
9. Embrace the terrific outdoors. Spending time outdoors is important for everyone's health and well-being. We do not have a gym and children may not stay inside by themselves. If your child is recovering from an illness and you don't want her to be outside, please make arrangements to drop her off late or pick her up early, depending on the class schedule.
10. Stock up. Have extra winter clothing on hand, if possible. The first Snow Day of the year is much less fun when your child has left her snow pants at school. And plan to lose at least one set of gloves. If you buy three identical sets of gloves, odds are you will have at least one matching set at the end of the year. Just in case, the Lost and Found box is in the office.
If you recently moved to West Lafayette from somewhere warm and lovely, I am so sorry! But seriously, you can stock up on all the clothing your family needs to get through your first Indiana winter at J.C. Penney, Sears, Target, KMart, or Walmart. You can purchase gently-used childrens' outerwear at Once Upon a Child in Lafayette.
Below are some examples of items your child will need.
Thanks for reading and bring on the snow!