Local school superintendents say there is no hard and fast rule as to when to close schools because of weather, but they all agree that closing schools is one of the most difficult decisions that they have to make.
Before making a decision they scour weather forecasts and monitor them through the night.
“It’s a very tough call,” said Tim Kilrea, the superintendent of Lyons Township High School District 204. “I’ve never met a superintendent that doesn’t agonize over making these decisions.”
Last week’s blast of artic air, which dropped morning temperatures below zero on Jan. 7 and 8, forced superintendents to decide whether to close schools. Although superintendents talk and try to coordinate in overlapping districts, they each ultimately must make their own calls.
As a result, superintendents made different calls.
Kilrea, who kept LTHS open on Jan. 7 but closed it Jan. 8, says that he does not look for a specific temperature or wind-chill factor when thinking about whether to close school.
“Obviously when air temperature and wind chill get very low, we pay very close attention to that, but is there a specific, actual hard number? No,” Kilrea said. “It’s not an exact science and every district is different.”
Kevin Skinkis, the superintendent of Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208, went against the grain last week and was in the minority of Chicago-area school superintendents in deciding to keep RBHS open all of last week.
“We were close last week to considering closing,” Skinkis said on Monday. “We felt that the projected forecasts were not as severe as the temperatures we experienced last year when school was canceled.
“Our goal is to try and have school open every day as scheduled.”
Skinkis said he consults with the president of the teachers union to see what teachers think and if they will have a problem getting to work. Teachers had no problem getting to RBHS last week, Skinkis said.
“Our teacher attendance was very, very, very good,” Skinkis said. “As long as the teachers are able to get here and the building’s operable, we think we provide a safe place for kids to be, so that’s why we chose to keep school open.”
RBHS student attendance was about 15 percent below normal on Jan. 7 and about 8 to 10 percent below normal on Jan. 8, Skinkis said.
The advent of the Internet and the hyping of weather forecasts by the media has increased pressure on school superintendents to make quick decisions on whether to close schools.
“It is somewhat of a domino effect,” Skinkis said. “As soon as schools start publishing that they’re going to be closed, everybody starts checking the websites, so parents are looking for quicker decision.”
Kilrea said he began getting calls from news organizations on the morning of Jan. 6, asking whether LTHS would close the next day.
High school districts generally try and coordinate their decisions with their grade school feeder districts, but the two don’t always synch up.
Each of the superintendents for the three elementary districts feeding into RBHS made different decisions last week.
Neil Pellicci, the superintendent of Komarek District 94, decided to follow the high school’s lead and stayed open both Jan. 7 and 8. One factor for Pellicci was that many of his students have two working parents who wouldn’t get the day off because of the cold, and he felt it was important his students have a safe warm, place to go to.
Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, the superintendent of Riverside Elementary School District 96, closed the schools on Jan. 7, but opened them on Jan. 8, a day where the morning temperatures were colder than the day before.
As she made her decision Tuesday night, Sharma-Lewis told the Landmark that safety for her students was her paramount consideration. Sharma-Lewis did not respond to messages left for her asking why decided to open schools on Thursday, though RBHS remaining open on Thursday was likely a factor.
Sharma-Lewis also reached out to her school board members seeking input on the decision to close on Jan. 7, District 96 school board President Mary Rose Mangia said.
Mark Kuzniewski, the superintendent of Brookfield- LaGrange Park District 95, decided to close the district’s two schools on both frigid days last week. The key factor in Kuzniewski’s decision was that some District 95 students take the bus to school. No students are bused to RBHS, Komarek or District 96 schools.
Kuzniewski said that he was concerned about students waiting for busses in the bitter cold.
Kilrea at LTHS and Warren Shillingburg of Brookfield-LaGrange District 102 decided to stay open on Wednesday, but closed on Thursday. Sixty-eight percent of LT students are eligible to take the bus to school.
Lyons-Brookfield District 103, which feeds partially into LTHS and partially into Morton High School District 201, followed Morton’s example and closed both days.
Kilrea, who has worked in education for 30 years, says that he believes schools now are quicker to close because of cold than they were when he began his career.
“It’s become more commonplace than it was 30 years ago,” Kilrea said. “That doesn’t make it wrong.”
Generally, heavy snow is more of a factor in closing schools than extreme cold.
“We went to school last year multiple times with colder temperatures than we had [last week],” Kilrea said. “We do live in Chicago, it gets cold in northern Illinois.”