When deciding to cancel classes as the result of inclement weather, the safety of students is the top priority for the Westerville City School District.
Dec. 21 marks the first official day of winter, although some snow flurries already have been seen this month.
Greg Viebranz, the district's executive director, communication and technology, said the decision to close district buildings, delay the start of school or call an early release has a big effect on families, so one of the guiding principles as options are considered is that students and families are better served by children being in school.
"However, our top priority when making those decisions remains the safety of students," he said. "As we evaluate the situation, we receive reports from district staff who are driving and checking road conditions. We have several roads we consider the most dangerous during bad weather, so those are always evaluated in person."
Viebranz said the district also gathers feedback from local law-enforcement officials and other road crews.
"Regardless of the decision made, we typically receive calls or emails saying, 'The roads were fine, why did you close?' or 'The roads are terrible, why did you stay open?' " he said.
Viebranz said officials have to consider the totality of the situation.
"In addition to road conditions, we evaluate how much snow and ice has already accumulated and if bad weather is expected to continue throughout the day," he said. "We also consider the temperature and expected wind chills as students are walking to school or waiting for the bus, especially when the wind chill is expected to be at or below negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit."
Building conditions, such as whether there is electricity and heat, as well as the condition of parking lots and sidewalks, also play a big role in the decision-making process, Viebranz said.
Ultimately, he said, the decision rests with the superintendent.
Superintendent John Kellogg said the district is very large, so weather and road conditions may be fine in one portion of the district but not in another.
"In such instances, we must close school or modify the school day for the entire district," he said.
Kellogg said he strives to make the decision to close by 5:30 a.m. so that radio and television stations can be notified, and the information can be posted on the district's website.
He said electronic notices also are sent to emergency announcement subscribers.
"Keep in mind that unusual weather conditions may force us to make the decision after this time," Kellogg said of his 5:30 a.m. target.
Once a decision has been made to open the schools, it can't be reversed in the morning without endangering students, he said.
Kellogg said many parents leave for work after a decision has been made and if the district would send students back home, many would return to unsupervised bus stops and empty houses.
"If conditions worsen during the school day, we may need to have an early dismissal or cancel (afternoon) kindergarten classes, but we will give as much notice as possible," he said. "Although my staff and I do our absolute best in this process, we know that often no perfect decision exists.
"If you do not feel that it is safe for your child to get to school, use your best judgment as to whether or not he or she should attend."
Kellogg said teenage drivers should be discouraged from driving in bad conditions.
Bob Lynde, the district's director of purchasing and logistics, said he begins communicating with decision-makers between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m. when poor weather conditions are anticipated.
"There's a ton of discussion leading up to that, the day before and night of with my staff and other school districts in our neighboring area," he said. "We ask what they're noticing."
Lynde said there are three routes supervisors drive to check portions of the district that covers 37 square miles.
He said he lives east and travels from the southeast area, where he checks road conditions.
"We have to be cognizant that our bus drivers have to get there, too," Lynde said. "They don't all live in Westerville. We have to have enough resources to get kiddos to and from school."
He said there have been a lot of times when he has questioned why he's out driving because of the poor road conditions.
"We tell people, 'please take your time,' " he said. "We try not to communicate while (checking roads)."
After traveling areas of the district, Lynde said, the supervisors meet and go over what they found and compile the information.
"Local law enforcement (input) is critical," he said. "They're out all night long. We also have to think of high schoolers driving that don't utilize our bus service and staff."
Lynde said he approaches the matter from the standpoint of what's best for Westerville.
"Our crews are great," he said. "Our goal is to operate."