For Worthington Schools Superintendent Trent Bowers, Jan. 8 began at 4:30 a.m. with one of his many snowy drives around town in an attempt to gauge the dangers for bus drivers, parents and students.
When inclement weather hits Worthington, Bowers and a team of drivers test problem areas, such as hills and points of major snow buildup, to experience the worst of the conditions.
Bowers said he drives a pickup truck that's "not great" in the snow and if he can make it through, it's reasonable to think buses and drivers heading to schools can, too.
On Jan. 8, changing temperatures resulted in "very icy" conditions, especially sidewalks, driveways and neighborhood roads. By the early hours of the morning, Bowers had called the first snow day of the school year.
He said his goal always is to make a decision by 5:30 a.m.
"The forecast at the time called for more snow throughout the morning and we were very concerned for buses to drive in those conditions and for students to attempt to walk with the ice," Bowers said. "In speaking with other area superintendents, it seemed that all other central Ohio districts were experiencing similar conditions, and thus we determined that it was best to close school."
After a decision is made, district leaders go into communication mode, attempting to reach students and parents however possible. A messenger system sends parents a text, email or phone call while district officials flood social media and call local news stations.
The system works well unless bad weather hits at the most challenging time, he said.
"It's all about timing," Bowers said. "Stuff that happens overnight is the great challenge. ... Things that hit overnight or things that hit right at arrival or dismissal are things that concern us."
The decision whether to cancel school is dependent on "a number of variables," Bowers said.
Bowers said snowfall, road conditions, temperatures, upcoming weather, the condition of buses and other factors are at play, as well as a desire to maintain a normal school schedule.
"On a scheduled school day, we want our kids in school, but safety is our first priority," Bowers said.
The district has a few more rigid cutoffs, such as a wind chill of minus 20 degrees. When that point is reached, Bowers said, people are in danger of frostbite if they are outside for more than 30 minutes.
But even that can be challenging when Bowers looks at a variety of weather websites – from local news to weather.gov – and sees conflicting figures, some above the threshold and some below.
"It's not a hard number," he said. "Any time it's around that number, we grow concerned. So we're looking at how long our average student will be at the bus stop."
The varying nature of those figures often is mirrored by the variances in temperatures and weather just within central Ohio.
Bowers said he frequently receives complaints from students and parents when a nearby district is closed or delayed and Worthington isn't. But for him, those districts are not relevant to Worthington's decision.
"(Olentangy) is 95 square miles, a lot of country roads. ... Dublin has the Jerome area, which is still very underdeveloped," he said. "So (parents) want to say, 'Why did Olentangy do something and Dublin did something but Worthington did something different?' I think a better barometer for Worthington is Upper Arlington, a landlocked community with the same type of roads."
Given the nature of the community, Bowers said, Worthington's threshold for weather can be a bit higher.
"Nobody in Worthington has to go very far to get to school," he said. "We're a district with 10,200 kids but only 19 square miles, so all of our schools are pretty close. Everyone lives within 3 or 4 miles of their school, and nobody has to get on a freeway to get to school. You could, but you don't have to. So we feel like it has to be pretty extreme in Worthington (to cancel school)."
One thing Bowers said he doesn't like to do is delay school. He said a delay can lead to better conditions but also puts drivers in a precarious position and disrupts a school day.
"We would use a delay if we really believe that the weather is going to be better two hours later or if we believe that we need daylight for our drivers to see," he said. "But the flip side is that when we use a delay, we put our drivers into more traffic. We're putting them right into rush hour a lot of times. So there's a tradeoff there."
No perfect solution
If the district does have school, it's up to people like Lee Arnold to make it happen.
Arnold is the head custodian at Worthington Estates Elementary School and solely is responsible for clearing walkways, putting down ice-melting products and making sure people can park and walk on the property.
He said he uses 10 to 20 50-pound bags of ice-melting products on a snowy day.
"When it's real bad, I come in at 4 (a.m.) or so in the morning and I can get things clear before the kids come in," he said, adding that he never adjusts to the frigid temperatures.
Bowers said district leaders appreciate the work by Arnold and others, including bus drivers who battle the weather on a regular basis.
But, he said, no perfect solution exists when the weather gets harsh, and defaulting to getting students to school is often the preferred solution.
"No matter what we do, it's hard for somebody," he said. "We want our students in school. When they're in school, they're warm. When they're in school, we feed them twice a day. So there are a lot of advantages to students being supervised by trusted adults in school. But it's hard."
Time available for closures is not a problem, though, said district spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda
Although many districts are required to make up days of school if winter weather causes too many closures, Worthington does not have that issue, she said.
Gnezda said the Ohio Revised Code requires 910 annual hours of education for elementary students (kindergarten through sixth grade) and 1,001 hours for secondary students. However, Worthington elementary students are scheduled to attend school for 1,049 hours and secondary students are scheduled for 1,176 hours.
"It's unlikely we would ever be required (to make up days)," she said. "However, it's also possible that if we missed five or six, our board would decide we should make those up because we really do value our kids being in school."
Regardless of the weather and the district's decisions, Bowers said, he always expects complaints, along with students who "just want the day off, and we get that."
"One of the things we know about winter is that we're going to hear from a lot of people that believe we should have been closed or believe we should have been open," he said. "And what I know is that it doesn't matter what decision we make, we're going to hear from the same number either way.
"I would always tell a family that if they don't think it's safe for their children and we're open, they have the right to leave them home. But we also think our students are best served at school, where they have supervision, have warmth, have meals being served to them."