Last week, we had 3.6 inches of snow in Nashville (2.5 inches on Monday morning, .6 inches on Tuesday, .4 inches in Wednesday, and .1 inches on Thursday according to the NOAA). The result was that Nashville's school system -- and almost all others in the mid-state region -- canceled school for the entire week. Though only 5 days of school were canceled, the day off for MLK's birthday means that there will be 10 consecutive days without school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools.
As a Northern transplant, I've often cynically joked that Nashville cancels one day of school for each inch of snowfall. Since I moved here, this the first time that the rule hasn't held.
Why would 3.6 inches of snow shut down a school system for an entire week? You might think it's because of the lack of snow clearing equipment in Southern cities, and you'd be partially right. But all the main roads had been plowed and salted by the end of the day Monday, and the vast majority of side roads were clear by Tuesday afternoon. So what gives? Well, a small fraction of the side roads -- including a number that school buses regularly travel -- remained covered with ice the entire week. This was the result of two things: 1.) temperatures that remained below freezing the entire week; and 2.) the fact that side roads, apparently, do not get salted or plowed in this city.
The continued cancellation of school day after day must've gotten somebody's attention, because the district felt compelled to post this explanation of how they make the decision following this announcement of a fifth consecutive day of school closures which says, in part, that:
We had serious concerns about safe bus travel. We did not want children to be left standing at a bus stop in 13-degree weather because a bus was unable to safely travel on an icy road. Additionally, we did not want to risk having a bus try to travel on an icy road and getting into an accident. We simply could not guarantee safe transportation for EVERY student in MNPS.
The explanation isn't completely unreasonable. The pictures posted on the website make it quite apparent that there were, in fact, still some icy roads on Friday. But this doesn't mean the city and school district didn't drop the ball. There are at least two easy solutions that could -- and should -- have been implemented.
1.) Since the main roads were clear on Monday, that left most, if not all, of the snow clearing equipment free for the rest of the week. It, of course, costs money to salt other roads -- money that undoubtedly wasn't part of an already tight budget. But at some point in the next four days, somebody has to have thought to themselves that it would be worth saving 3 or 4 days of school to go salt a couple dozen troublesome spots. Since bus safety was the main issue, trucks could have simply driven the school bus routes and salted problem areas.
2.) MNPS officials should be aware after a similar episode last year that it can take a number of days for the snow/ice to melt from all the roads in the county. Given this knowledge, it would seem prudent to have alternate/emergency bus routes set up for days where only a few hilly, shaded roads are dangerous. For a couple of days each year, kids can be dropped off at bus stops slightly farther from home and still make it to school safely. Many public transportation systems (including Nashville's) have such alternate routes for their buses.
The end result is that it's only mid-January and Nashville has already used 7 snow days. They only have 4 built in, so they'll be attending school on President's Day and will tack on two extra days at the end of the year (after the state testing). More importantly, students will have attended exactly four days of school between December 17th and January 17th. I don't envy the teachers who have to re-establish classroom norms and get students back up to speed this Tuesday and for the rest of the week and month.
Now, this is not to say that it's always a bad idea to cancel school. Overly zealous decisions to keep school in session regardless of weather conditions can be harmful or, at best, a waste of time. During my two years in NYC, we had three days (including one where 19 inches of snow fell on Sunday) where virtually all of the surrounding suburban districts called off of school but NYC did not. On all three days, the majority of teachers and majority of students did not show up. The SOP for those days was for all present students and teachers to report directly to the cafeteria in the morning. The administrators then surveyed the scene and assigned students to teachers (on one day I had about a half-dozen kids from three different classes) and a day of babysitting, videos, and hangman ensued. Chancellor Klein undoubtedly thought he was doing the students right by preventing students from missing valuable instruction time, but those on the ground saw a different story unfold (though, to be fair, the kids who did show got free childcare and meals even if they didn't learn much of anything).
In the end, the Nashville situation is yet another example of ways that circumstances outside of the control of teachers and administrators can influence the achievement of students. Beyond that, it's an example of the myriad ways in which school districts and cities can influence the achievement of students beyond the standard examinations of pedagogy, curriculum, teacher quality, etc. When designing models to explain the achievement level of students, in addition to accounting for teacher, school, neighborhood, and family effects we may also need to include the ability of local governments to mitigate weather problems.