BRATTLEBORO—On Sunday night, parents and (joyful) students in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) received robocalls informing them that, yet again, school was cancelled Monday.
The snow that started early Sunday morning and didn’t stop spilled into roads, driveways, and sidewalks, making Monday, Feb. 9, the district’s third snow day of the 2014-15 school year.
Many schools in southern Vermont have had several unscheduled three-day weekends thanks to the fluffy white stuff. Unfortunately, the big “but” in the room is that too many snow days translate into a longer school year for students.
The state requires 175 in-classroom days. School districts in Windham County maintain a regional calendar that syncs up vacations and other large events.
School calendars are not identical, however. The districts decide individually some items, like how many snow days to build into their school years, which can alter starting and end dates.
Windham Southeast, for example has three snow days built into its calendar.
Next door, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union (WSWSU, which includes Twin Valley Middle High School) has five snow days allowed in its school year.
As of Feb. 9, WSESU had used all of its snow days.
Superintendent Ron Stahley said that WSESU schools are slated to end classes the week of June 15. Any more storms could mean a later dismissal date sometime in that week for students in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and Vernon.
Stahley chuckled when asked how he decides when to close school saying, “I have a matrix.”
Weather affects the towns in WSESU differently, he said.
Brattleboro doesn’t get as much snow as the other towns, yet there is the state of its sidewalks to consider. Or, while the streets are clear in Brattleboro, the hilly back roads of Putney or Dummerston are buried under a foot of snow.
“This is not a criticism of the road crews,” Stahley said. It is more a commentary on trying to guess at New England weather.
Stahley said after confirming weather reports, he consults with towns’ public works departments, school principals, and sometimes the bus company.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said of calling a snow day. “I err on the side of safety.”
Snow days don’t impact students’ learning or teacher’s union contracts, said Stahley. The supervisory union builds in extra days to the middle school and high schools’ first semester as insurance against snow days interfering with exams.
As a parent, Stahley said he always hoped that his children were doing their homework and extra reading on snow days.
He laughed and added, “While they’re outside sledding.”
Better safe than sorry
Windham Southwest Superintendent Christopher Pratt wrote in an email that defending an unnecessary snow day is easier than defending not canceling school during bad weather.
“The bottom line is that the safety of students comes first and I always err on the side of caution,” wrote Pratt.
As of Feb. 9, WSWSU had used four of its five allowed snow days.
Should the supervisory union use more than five days, the superintendent will tack days onto the end of the school year.
Pratt relies on School Board Chair Seth Boyd and Twin Valley Bus Coordinator Heather Dix to help him decide whether or not to call a snow day.
Windham Southwest also includes the Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford school districts.
“I have to say as a first year superintendent and living in Brattleboro it becomes pretty tricky to make the call for Windham Southwest,” wrote Pratt in an email. “The weather, as you know, varies tremendously from as far west as Stamford to as far east as Halifax.”
Weather can also vary widely between Brattleboro and the towns in WSWSU, adding to Pratt’s need to make a snow day call in conjunction with Boyd and Dix.
Windham Elementary School Board Chair Carolyn Partridge echoed Pratt in saying that superintendents decide to call a snow day in conjunction with principals and school bus companies.
Windham Elementary school is part of the Windham Central Supervisory Union. According to the WCSU website, the supervisory union’s 365 square miles and more than 150 miles of connecting roads makes it geographically the second largest supervisory union in the state. The union serves about 1,000 students in Brookline, Dover, Jamaica, Marlboro, Newfane, Stratton, Townshend, Wardsboro, and Windham.
WCSU Superintendent Steven John returned a call from The Commons requesting an interview, but scheduling issues prevented the interview from taking place before deadline.
Hairy rides on Windham Hill
The health and safety of the kids is the biggest deciding factor, Partridge said. “That’s the wise choice to make.”
Partridge, who serves in the Vermont House of Representatives, used to be a school bus driver in Windham.
She has experienced first-hand what it is like to shepherd a busload of kids through dicey weather on the backroads of one of the snowiest towns in Windham County.
She recalls one storm where it snowed “cats and dogs” in Windham. According to the state’s website, Windham is 1,967 feet above sea level. Partridge called Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School in Townshend. She needed to pick up the kids now before the roads became impassable.
The school thought she was nuts, said Partridge. Only rain was falling on Townshend, which sits 547 feet above sea level.
Partridge watched the snow and wind increase to blizzard conditions. She finally told the school, either she bused the kids home immediately, or that night the school would be hosting a sleep over.
“That’s what sort of got them,” said Partridge.
A sideways skid down Windham Hill also stands out for Partridge.
That morning, the sander from Townshend had not yet sanded the steep hill that connects the two towns. Partridge’s bus started to slide until it sat sideways in the road. She remembers maneuvering the right side tires into soft snow at the road’s edge eventually bringing the bus to face the right way round.
“We just sat there until the plow came with sand,” Partridge said.
Partridge couldn’t say which was worse, driving in snow or mud.
“Depends how deep the mud is and how icy the snow is,” she said.
Students riding the bus almost always fell silent during a “near miss or what have you,” said Partridge of her adventures in bad-weather driving. When the coast was clear again, she said, students would applaud.