As high winds and heavy snow barreled into Northeast Ohio, Oberlin and many schools in the county locked their doors, sending happy students back to bed.
The deep freeze stretched winter break an extra four days, which Oberlin City Schools superintendent David Hall said is rare. In nearly 20 years in education, this is the first time he can recall local schools shutting down for several days at a time.
Closing school is a tough call — one Hall said he lost hours of sleep over. With every winter storm threat, he wakes in the wee hours to consider the latest weather radar readings or drive local roads to gauge their conditions.
Before making a final call, he typically peruses weather websites and discusses options with superintendents in other districts.
“We want school to be open, so we try to call it off as late as possible,” Hall said. “We try to wait to see if it changes unless we know it’s going to be bad out. We knew this week wasn’t going to get better.”
He takes a better-safe-than-sorry approach, using discretion to assess road conditions, wind chill, and temperature. Student safety is his top priority.
About 400 kids are outside between 7 and 8 a.m. each school day, and they are the ones he worries about. There are roughly 310 who wait for the bus and another 100 who walk — and it’s important to understand some don’t have hats, gloves, or coats, he said.
If the roads aren’t safe, the sidewalks aren’t shoveled, or kids aren’t wrapped in bountiful layers, going to school isn’t safe.
But it might be the only place where some students eat a meal, Hall said. The district’s free-and-reduced lunch program is used by more than 80 percent of students.
As a father of young children, Hall can empathize with parents who have to find last-minute babysitters or call off from work. Still, his decisions are based on what’s safest for all students and staff members, he said, even though academics will be missed.
The Oberlin school district has 15 calamity days on its 2017-2018 academic calendar, enough to absorb the week of closings. Unless Mother Nature brings more pain, the school year will not be extended.
Being snowed out of school is especially tough on students gearing up for midterm exams or standardized tests, but Hall said a snow day here or there won’t hurt learning. Teachers understand how to adjust their lesson plans and students are aware of after-school tutoring programs, he said.
“We can always move midterms back a week and make some arrangements, which is fine, but student safety comes first,” he said. “The main factor is the 400 students standing out in the cold.”
Not all learning is lost when school is out, though. Langston Middle School principal Michael Scott encouraged students to post pictures of themselves learning — reading books or solving math problems, for example — and tag him on Twitter @LMS_PrincipalOB or on Instagram @langston_phoenixob with the hashtag #borntobegreat for an opportunity to win prizes.
Lorain County’s weather advisory will remain in effect until noon on Satuday. Wind chill is expected to range from five to 25 below zero. The cold wind can cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.