116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When winter weather threatens to drop temperatures and make roads slippery, Linn-Mar Community School District Superintendent Shannon Bisgard heads out to drive roads at 4 a.m. to determine whether it’s necessary to delay school two hours — or cancel the day altogether.
Along with about four other district officials, Bisgard drives paved and gravel roads and checks the school parking lots to see if it’s safe for buses, families dropping of kids and high school students driving themselves to operate in the conditions.
“I don’t want to be a weatherman, but you kind of have to be in this job,” Bisgard said.
In making their decisions as the clocks tick toward the start of the school day, Eastern Iowa superintendents like Bisgard consider how much snow is expected, if the wind is causing drifts that could make it dangerous to travel, the temperature and wind chill.
While there will be — and have already been — snow days this academic year, Bisgard said school districts want to provide “as much continuity as possible” for students who already have spent the last two years learning during the pandemic.
It’s a decision that is made by 5:30 a.m. at the latest.
School delays and cancellations have a “huge impact on families” who may need to stay home from work to take care of children or find last-minute child care, said Doug Wheeler, superintendent of the College Community School District.
“We know it’s a pretty big decision,” Wheeler said. “Having a snow day is really about safety. We have over 4,000 bus riders all coming to a central campus, so our buses have pretty long routes, and we also have a lot of amateur teen drivers.”
Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said making the decision about a snow day is “nerve-racking.”
If he chooses to go ahead with school that day despite the weather, “Am I setting in motion a decision where someone could die?” Batenhorst wonders.
“You don’t want to be wrong. You err on the side of caution without being paranoid,” he said. “No matter what, you’re setting yourself up for criticism.”
Eastern Iowa K-12 school superintendents begin communicating with each other about a potential snow day 24 hours in advance, and often try to come to the same decisions. Alerts from the National Weather Service help with making the decision.
“You talk to your peers, so you’re not going it alone,” Batenhorst said.
Batenhorst and Wheeler also drive to the roads in their communities early in the morning.
“I’ll go out and drive some of the main roads, see how the highways are outside of town and pick a gravel road or two,” Batenhorst said. Wheeler once got stuck on a gravel road in the snow near The Eastern Iowa Airport.
When the wind chill factor is colder than 20 below zero is when schools seriously consider delaying school, Bisgard said.
Schools occasionally make an “anticipatory” call, canceling school when weather coming later in the day could make it dangerous for students, staff, parents and school buses to get home safely.
Sometimes that snow never comes, Batenhorst said.
But other times, the snow comes “hard and fast,” right on target, and you feel good you didn’t make the wrong decision.“
“It’s winter in Iowa. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt because of snow,” Batenhorst said.
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