Several times this winter as forecasts warned of bitter cold temperatures and wind chills, students and parents anxiously waited for news that school would be canceled or delayed two hours.
That announcement came just once for Pequot Lakes and Nisswa school students, after a storm left icy roads and prompted many area schools to cancel classes that day.
Pine River-Backus students, on the other hand, have seen several delayed starts on top of the one canceled school day.
Cathy Bettino, PR-B superintendent, said many, many variables go into the decision.
“In Pine River-Backus, we cover a large geographic area — about 550 square miles. So while at one end of the district there may be little snow or temperatures not as harsh, I have to look at the entire district,” Bettino said in an email.
She relies on Tom Bristow, the school district’s transportation director. “Tom actually goes out and drives on the roads to see the conditions,” Bettino said. “We travel on a lot of county and country roads, which are not always plowed right away. If ice is the issue, these gravel roads will not get the chemical treatment and so while they have a natural grip, if we have too much ice, we could end up sliding.
“When we have severe cold, we look at the raw temperature and then the wind chill. We actually consider the wind direction, too,” she said. The PR-B district has a lot of students in the country with little protection, and administrators don’t want to put students at risk at any time.
Rick Linnell, Pequot Lakes School District superintendent, takes two factors into account when considering whether to close schools because of cold weather: the static air temperature and the wind chill.
Linnell said there’s no set criteria for closing or delaying school. He maintains contact with superintendents in neighboring districts and the Pequot Lakes district’s director of transportation, and he watches the weather.
Linnell pointed out that recently, the northern region of the Pine River-Backus district was much colder than the Pequot Lakes district, and the PR-B district had higher winds, which drove the temperature even lower. Pequot Lakes temperatures weren’t as cold, which is why school there wasn’t delayed even though PR-B was.
Bettino agreed, citing PR-B’s larger, more rural area with significantly lower temperatures and stronger winds.
“Our northwest areas are pretty open to the wind,” she said. Bettino also chooses to announce a school closing or delayed start as early as the evening before.
“With regard to the timing, I do try to let people know as soon as possible because many have to make child care arrangements,” she said. “A phone call at 6 p.m. is better than 5 a.m. ... but we do make the 5 a.m. calls if things happen suddenly or if we need to wait it out.” The Brainerd School District, which includes Nisswa Elementary School, also relies on weather forecasts and advice from the district’s transportation provider.
“If wind or snow is in the forecast, we pay special attention to if we will have plow support from the county and municipalities,” said Brainerd superintendent Steve Razidlo, noting the district relies on many eyes and ears to get a feel for whether the weather will put them on that bubble of risk.
With the most recent threats of cold, the district looked carefully to determine any potential gain or need for a late start. On Friday, Feb. 1, Razidlo said it was colder at 8 a.m. than at 6 a.m. in the Brainerd district, so nothing would have been gained by delaying school two hours. Razidlo also cited a change in state statute that allowed bus companies and transportation providers to use a different fuel mix than biodiesel, which caused bus trouble several years ago.
A combination of wind and cold, or wind, cold and darkness requires careful consideration, Razidlo said, and 20 to 25 below zero temperatures put the district on or at that bubble of risk of running buses successfully. Also, a storm in late December is different than a storm in late January or February.
“When the light starts to come back, temperatures go up more quickly in the morning,” Razidlo said.
School closings or delays are decided by 5 or 5:30 a.m. with a lot of conversation, Razidlo said, adding that ultimately, parents are the best judges whether to send their kids to school in harsh weather.