Severe Weather Toolkit

2.0 Making School-Related Severe Weather Decisions

School districts face many challenges when weather affects their ability to conduct classes, operate bus routes and otherwise keep students and staff safe. For example: Will a weather-related schedule change endanger students or staff or will delaying release create greater risk? Operational decisions that impact school schedules are challenging, yet, the health, safety and security of students and staff must remain a school district's priority. If school is in session and adverse weather threatens, the district will need to consider the impact of the risk to individuals and property and expected duration of the event. Each campus should review protective measures that would best address the risk. Also, staff should be prepared to act appropriately. The district, in consultation with local area emergency management, public works officials and local meteorologists, must determine the appropriate protective measures for students and staff. Communication with local partners is also vital because decisions for the changes in school schedules impact the entire community.

Schedule Changes

An unexpected schedule change may result in students being sent to empty homes or being placed in threatening conditions due to an approaching storm or imminent severe weather. Therefore, changes in district scheduling must be vetted through the appropriate district authority which in most cases is the Superintendent or designee.

Delayed Release

In situations where release is risky, the district may consider retaining students and staff on campus. If students are already on buses, considerations should be made to determine whether the safest action is to complete the bus route, take students to the nearest safe location, or return them to a designated district site. In some situations, the nearest safe location may not be a school facility, but instead may be at another school district, or a community, or city or county building. When a delayed release or other emergency protective measures is used, schools must keep parents updated and provide information about the expected length of the delay and alternate ways to reunite parents and students.

Early Dismissal

When weather conditions appear to be worsening during the school day, the district, in consultation with area emergency management and local meteorologists, should determine the appropriate protective measures for students and staff and whether early dismissal is appropriate. Collaboration with other local governmental and business entities can be valuable when determining actions and in understanding traffic conditions resulting from simultaneous early dismissal by other employers. If early dismissal is elected, the district may use its emergency notification procedures to begin dismissal. This ensures the safe and effective release of students and the efficient running of buses. The actual dismissal process will vary depending on the time of day the decision is made.

Delayed Start/Cancellation and Closing School

If classes are not in session and weather conditions prohibit the standard school schedule, the district may make a decision to institute a delay (usually a two-hour delay) to allow a staggered start. This helps ensure key staff are on site and that bus operations can proceed.

The decision to close school for the day will usually be made the morning of the closure day. In certain circumstances the decision may be made the evening before, as changing weather patterns and community preparedness can affect the outcome. Closure decisions related to tropical weather and fire threats should incorporate the recommendations of local authorities.

Internal and external district communication should be rapid when the district implements any of the protective actions, to provide timely notification to staff, parents and the community. These communications should include traditional media such as radio, television, and newspapers, as well as social media and emergency messaging notification processes.

During the winter weather season, controversy lingers in many communities across the south aimed at local decision-makers, especially school officials, who are responsible for emergency weather closing decisions. For schools, the emergency weather closing process is complex and extends well beyond concerns for lost attendance days and dollars. Interruption of the educational process affects testing, disrupts schedules, deprives many students of health and mental health services they primarily receive at schools, and potentially leaves many youngsters at home unattended or in neglectful circumstances. The news media sometimes push for school closures without understanding the issues that hasty announcements may create, especially when (as often is the case in Texas) a weather system does not materialize.

Additionally, many people overlook the fact that, for most school employees and even some students, the school day starts hours in advance of the first bell. Campus administrators will attest that some parents, rain or shine, will drop their children off at school well before 6:30 a.m. when the only other people who may be on campus are the cafeteria and custodial staff members. Many extracurricular practices and meetings occur during a "zero" period, or before school officially begins each day. Additionally, buses run, classrooms and offices are cleaned, facilities are opened and checked, food is prepared and lessons readied well before the start of the school day.

In many cases, the first and best information about road conditions comes from school bus drivers who typically travel their routes (usually in personal vehicles) to identify hazards, prior to bussing students. These drivers know where the daily hazards exist and the impact that various weather events have on the safety of the roadways. Within this myriad of responsibilities rests the emergency weather decision timeline and the difficulties that occur when a forecast is fraught with uncertainty or the storm system may not develop where and how prognosticators expect.

When making any safety or emergency decision, school and community leaders undoubtedly base their actions in the best interest of their communities. Sometimes closing school is the best option, but not routinely so.

Operational decisions that impact school schedules are challenging, yet, the health, safety and security of students and staff must remain a district's priority. For example, if school is in session and adverse weather threatens, the district should consider the likelihood of impact, risk to individuals and property, and expected duration of the event. Each campus should review protective measures that would best address the risk, and staff should be prepared to act appropriately.

Resumption of Classes

If a weather event is expected to last more than one day, the school district reserves the right to make the closure or delay decision on a day-to-day basis. District reopening considerations include coordination with local emergency management, public works, infrastructure providers and meteorologist partners to ensure that both schools and routes to schools are safe for routine traffic and services have been restored. In addition, district staff members must be allowed time to inspect infrastructure and adjust schedules to ensure a smooth resumption of operations.

Considerations

Texas weather changes rapidly, therefore it is often difficult to predict the impact of the weather system on our schools and communities. Many public and private sector decision makers tend to follow the lead of the schools. The stress of the decision process is amplified by pressure from the news media to make early announcements, which may be exacerbated by speculation from social media and some other news outlets. Within these scenarios school leaders must be ready to make an informed decision as soon as possible. Establishing collaboration checklists and identifying decision point indicators can be valuable tools in developing decision timelines.

The district should always work in consultation with area emergency management, public works officials and local meteorologists to determine the appropriate weather protective measures for students and staff. Communication with local partners is also vital as school decisions to change schedules or close for the day impacts the community as a whole.

Collaboration Considerations

1) What are the recommendations of meteorologists and of local and regional officials?

2) What is the certainty of the event?

3) Is feedback available from key partners?

  • News reports about the storm's impact (if available)
  • Other school districts
  • Police/Fire/EMS
  • Public works and Texas Department of Transportation
  • Utility services
  • Transportation Services (both in district and public transit)
  • Historical evidence (e.g., is the area prone to flooding or is a roadway particularly treacherous when icy, etc.)

4) What feedback is available from within the school (transportation, law enforcement, campus administrators, etc.)?

5) Would a conference call or emergency briefing be appropriate?

6) How would such a briefing be timed?

7) How would feedback from other external partners affect a school decision?

Decision Factors

1)If weather event occurs or threatens during the school day, consider the following:

  • Has the event already started and is it expected to continue?
  • Are current conditions poor or likely to deteriorate?
  • Is there consensus from neighboring or affected school district and community leaders regarding closures or schedule changes?
  • Are there inherent risks to waiting? (will road conditions deteriorate or will they improve, will the weather become more severe or will it clear, is the event expected to be extended or short lived, etc.)

2) If school is in session, consider early dismissal.

3) If weather has affected or is certain to greatly impact next day operations, then try to announce by 9 p.m. (to meet nighttime news deadlines)

4) If weather conditions are expected to deteriorate overnight, but forecast lacks certainty, consider the following before determining when to make the schedule announcement:

  • Has the event started and is it likely to continue?
  • Are current conditions poor or likely to deteriorate?
  • Are there safety risks to a delayed start versus closure?
  • Is there consensus from other school districts and community leaders?

5) If incident evolved overnight and/or conditions did not warrant an earlier decision, then try to announce by 5 a.m. (to meet morning news deadlines and to contact support staff who are the first on campus before they try to go to work)

Resources

Severe Weather Decision Flowchart