Snow causes a flurry of activity for school district heads

Superintendents keep vigil watching the skies

By:Eve Collins and Vanessa S. Holt
   In the pre-dawn hours before a snowstorm, a handful of people keep vigil, watching the skies, the roads and The Weather Channel.
   Forecasts for heavy snow mean a sleepless night for many school administrators and the road crews who work to keep the streets clear.
   Last week, area superintendents had to consider declaring a snow day for the first time in several years before snow began falling during the early-morning hours of Dec. 5.
   Up to 8 inches of snow was reported in the area, and all public schools in the county were closed for a day.
   "You’re so concerned about the safety of kids and staff members who have to travel back and forth," said Bordentown Regional School District Superintendent John Polomano. "It’s the most stressful thing."
   On Friday morning, Mr. Polomano got up at 4 a.m. and drove around the school district to see what the roads were like after the storm was over. Schools opened an hour late on Friday to give crews a chance to finish clearing roadways and ensure they were safe.
   "When I start hearing snow warnings, my friends and family know I’m going to go crazy," said Mr. Polomano. "I know some of these people on The Weather Channel by first name; I even know their wardrobes."
   Making sure the roads are clear is just one of the factors that must be taken into consideration.
   "You have to think, do the children have a place to stand to get the bus?"
   Schools rarely opt to close early for snow, instead going with one of three options during snowfall: opening one hour late, two hours late or closing altogether, he said.
   "It’s stressful," he said. "You don’t know when the snow is going to start."
   The decision is made by 5 a.m. in the Bordentown Regional School District so the school can get the word out to local radio stations, record messages for its phone system and post messages on its Web site,
   Two snow days were built into the calendar this year, said Mr. Polomano.
   Mr. Polomano said he has a feeling he will be glued to The Weather Channel again this year. With snow already on the ground in early December, he said he thinks it might be a snowy winter this year, though hopefully not as bad as some of the ice storms the area faced in the mid-1990s.
   "It’s a tough decision for everybody," he said.
   Gerard Steffe, superintendent for Florence Township schools, likes to make up his mind as to whether the schools will be closed before 5:30 a.m.
   "Number one is to watch the weather," he said.
   With last week’s storm, he checked The Weather Channel at 2:30 a.m. and again at 4:30, when he began consulting others as to the intensity of the approaching storm and the road conditions.
   Those he contacts include the local police, the school board president, and other superintendents in the area. He also calls the school bus transportation coordinator and those in charge of the school grounds, who had already been out monitoring the storm.
   "We put our heads together," said Mr. Steffe, "and try to get everything set in motion."
   During this time, everyone continues to monitor the storm and the conditions of the roads, not only for those who get a ride to school, but also for those who walk, said Mr. Steffe.
   "Our concern is for the safety of all the youngsters," he said.
   They also consider the afternoon commute in their decision by estimating how much snow there will be by the 3 p.m. dismissal. An early dismissal is not preferred, he said, because some parents won’t have made arrangements for someone to take care of their kids.
   According to Mr. Steffe, although there is no way to predict how severe a winter might be, he builds two snow days into the school calendar and adds more if they are needed. If the days are used, they are made up at the end of the school year, so the graduation dates are tentative.
   "But those last few days in June really don’t make up for these days in December, when the students and teachers are into their routine," he said.
   James Sarruda of the Northern Burlington Regional School District said that this snow day was unusual.
   "It wasn’t even snowing when we decided to close," he said.
   He explained that the decision was made based on the forecast, and it was the first time he closed schools without snow on the ground.
   Dr. Sarruda consults the district’s business administrator and transportation director during the evening about the school grounds and the roads, and then again at 4 a.m.
   Criteria for opening the schools include making sure the parking lots are cleared, that the heat is working, and that the sidewalks are shoveled, all by 7:15 a.m., according to Dr. Sarruda. If all this can’t be done, he said, they might delay for an hour.
   Once the decision to close is made, he calls the elementary constituencies.
   "If the high school closes, then the elementary schools close," he said. "But sometimes the high school will open and the elementary schools might close anyway" because of wind chill or other factors that might affect smaller children.
   Springfield Township Elementary School District Superintendent Helena Kosoff said each of the four sending districts in the Northern Burlington region looks at its roads throughout the night of a snowstorm.
   "I reach out to my custodial staff and my school board, who live in different areas of the township," she said, noting that the township covers 29 square miles. She talks to the plow service provider to get an update on the condition of back roads, and makes a decision around 4 a.m.
   Ms. Kosoff said she also has a feeling that this won’t be the only snowstorm this year.
   "I like to read the Farmer’s Almanac; it says we’re going to have a lot of snow," she said.
   Dr. Sarruda said his own prediction is that there will be more snow, since his district is building a middle school.
   "It’s Murphy’s Law," he said.