Every student loves when school is cancelled for winter weather. The familiar ring of the phone on a snowy evening never ceases to excite Chesterfield County students, from kindergarteners to high school seniors. Much goes on behind the scenes of the cancellation call, and many students are unaware of the complicated process required to shut down schools.
Tim Bullis, Chesterfield County’s Director of Community Relations, or known by many as the voice behind every student’s favorite call, reveals the procedure followed by Chesterfield County for canceling schools for winter weather.
County officials watch long term forecasts closely during the winter months for any signs of winter weather. The afternoon before a possible storm, they communicate with the Emergency Operation Center workers, state and local police, and the Department of Transportation. Chesterfield County’s transportation experts drive the roads to get a solid idea of the conditions. According to Bullis, the county leaders “are in constant contact with local meteorologists, who give us advice.” They then put all of the information together in order to make a decision “if possible the night before, but unfortunately there are some days when we can’t make a decision until 5:30 in the morning.” It is difficult for the county to produce a decision without having actual snow falling. “Even if it’s forecasted, we’re going to wait until we see it; unfortunately, mother nature can be cruel and change sometimes,” says Bullis. The county executives try to avoid canceling school based purely on forecasts because they have a high possibility of being wrong. Seeing the snowfall is important to Mr. Bullis, because his main goal is to have students in class, and he doesn’t want to cancel school unnecessarily. That being said, Bullis emphasized, “our primary responsibility is to keep students safe.”
Cancelling school is very rarely an easy decision. Chesterfield is one of the largest counties geographically in Virginia, which makes it difficult to make a decision that affects the whole county. “It can be 40 degrees in Midlothian, and in Chester it’s 32, and you’ve got a coat of snow on the ground. What you see out one window might not be what you see out of another,” says Bullis. Once the weather reports are finalized, and the roads are checked, Chesterfield officers then consult with surrounding counties. “We don’t make our decision based on what somebody else does, but we do share our decisions,” says Bullis.
Dr. Marcus Newsome, the Chesterfield County Superintendent, makes the final decision about whether or not school will be canceled. Once the choice has been made, Tim Bullis logs onto a computer, signs into his account, records a message, and he says, “within those few steps, you automatically reach over 45,000 homes.” Once the call has been made, students across the county breathe a simultaneous sigh of relief. When word gets out that school has been canceled, Twitter reflects the excitement felt by students in the county. Bullis describes reading the updates as “an interesting exercise.”
According to Bullis, parents don’t always feel the same way as their children. He often has to deal with scathing Facebook critiques from angry parents, a sharp contrast to the gratitude he receives from students on Twitter. Many parents who grew up in other, snowier states, are angry that just a few inches of snow can shut down an entire school system. Bullis tells parents that “we are not made like other states.” Chesterfield’s roads, buildings, and coping methods are different than other states that experience much harsher winter conditions. Despite these sometimes vicious attacks, Bullis maintains that “at the end of the day, our primary responsibility is to keep students and staff safe.”
After the snow days have been enjoyed, and students are back in school, the work is not over for the county officials. They then have to discern whether or not the school system will be able to fulfil the class time requirements set by the states. “State law requires that you’re either in school for 180 days, or 990 hours,” says Bullis. The curriculum taught to students is built based on the time required to teach it, so the days lost to snow can become a major hassle to the county. There are several options that allow schools to earn the required amount of time. Usually president’s day is taken first because it is built into the calendar to allow for possible snow makeup. After that, time can be added onto the end of the day, like the 2015-2015 school year, when 15 minutes were added. Other options include taking away spring break (cue the gasps), and adding days to the end of the school year. Many parents make it clear that the latter two options are unacceptable, so the implementation of these methods is extremely rare.
When asked whether or not he personally enjoyed snow days, Tim Bullis laughed and shook his head. “Those mornings we’re usually up by 4:00. It’s definitely a sleep on the couch downstairs kind of night,” he says. Rest assured that whether or not Mr. Bullis likes snow days, he promised that it will have no effect on the final decision when it comes down to making the final call on school cancellations.
Header image: Universities colleges; Snow; Sleds sleighs; Ohio–Oxford