How Snow Days Happen: The Decision-Making Process

February 8, 2018, 10:21 AM EST

 
Above:  School buses traversing ice- and snow-covered roads are one of the factors school systems must consider when deciding whether or not to call a snow day. Image credit: Roberto Machada Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images.

When a big winter storm spins across the country, parents get nervous and kids get excited. School officials must decide if they’re going to cancel school or delay classes. Where do they look for weather information? What do they think about as they decide? In this guest post, science historian Dr. Roger Turner interviews Dr. Gina Eosco (Cherokee National Strategic Programs), a risk communication expert who provides social science support to NOAA, the parent agency of the National Weather Service. Eosco (on Twitter at @WxComm) has previously worked for Environmental Research Group (ERG) and the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program. This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited.

Gina Eosco
Above: Gina Eosco.

Turner: Lots of parents are interested in how decisions are made about when to close or delay school because of snow. Can you tell us a little about how you’ve studied this?

Eosco: This is a great question! These decisions are much more complex than the simple open-or-closed message parents receive. As part of a previous job with ERG, I conducted focus groups, interviews, and simulations (more like an activity than a conversation) about winter weather information with schools, DOTs [departments of transportation], and emergency managers across the country. Specifically, we met with urban, suburban, and/or rural schools across the country from states such as North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, and Wyoming. Although schools were not the only focus of the study, schools were a key representative to understand the effects of winter weather on society.

Turner: What kinds of weather conditions worry school officials the most?

Eosco: Depends where the school is. For southern states, a flake in the forecast is enough to close school. Southern states simply do not have the infrastructure nor the resources to salt or sand roads. As a consequence, there is a risk (of accident and injury) to students who walk to school and those who ride buses.

Northern states experience winter weather more often and therefore have more in the way of resources and infrastructure. These schools (depending on size) often do not close for snow. Rather, they close for extreme cold and wind chills. Imagine a student waiting for a bus or walking to school in -20°F temperatures. Snow by itself won't harm students, but the cold may. I should add that in northeastern states, the infrastructure such as trains and subways is very sensitive to snow amounts. For these states, snowfall amounts can play a more influential role in whether to stay open or close.

Where closing decisions become tricky is in the balance of snow amounts with timing. When the snow falls is critical. Can DOTs and public works clear the roads in time? What about the sidewalks? Almost all weather information is important—timing, temperature, wind chills, snow amounts, etc.—but how other local and state agencies (e.g., DOTs) respond is important too. Student safety (and of course staff safety) comes first.

Winter Storm Stella in Portland, ME, 3/15/2017
Figure 1. Lola Fitzgerald, 5, jumps over a snow pile on March 15, 2017, as her family shovels their driveway on the west end of Portland, Maine, the day after the winter storm dubbed Stella brought high winds and more than a foot of snow on the area. Image credit: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.

Turner: Where do local officials usually get their weather forecasts from?

Eosco: For emergency managers, the National Weather Service is almost always mentioned, as well as a private weather industry consultant. For schools, it was a little more complex. Schools use and value the local NWS forecast, and they also value their relationship with a local NWS office. However, parents are a key audience for schools, and parents may get their information from social media, local TV stations, cellphone apps, etc. As soon as one parent hears that Station A is forecasting 12 inches of snow, the parent wants to know why the schools aren't making the decision to close...now. For superintendents, social pressure or the parental perception of the forecast weighs heavily on their decisions.

Turner: What else plays into the decision to close or not to close?

Eosco: We heard a common theme that makes you look at school closings in a different light. Although students may enjoy a "snow day," there are many negative implications of closing school—impacts on the local economy, impacts on parents finding childcare or taking time off from work, delays in teacher lesson plans, the need to make up school time later in the year. In many ways, closing school is less than desirable.

One thought in particular weighs heavily on the minds of superintendents across the country: they know that for some children the school lunch is their only meal of the day. Canceling school may mean no food for that child.

Turner: We know that residential segregation has huge effects on education in the US, such as how dilapidated schools in Baltimore had to close this year for lack of heat. Did you get any sense that more affluent districts make different weather-related decisions than poorer ones?

Eosco: We didn't collect enough data to provide a comprehensive answer to that question. Funding concerns were a common theme for the schools we spoke to regardless of the type of district they represent. Although it was not formally part of this study, economic inequalities certainly play a role. We heard second-hand stories that finding child care for a school closure may pose more hardships on single parents or on parents that have no paid time off, for example.

Turner: Finally, your previous research has helped meteorologists better communicate uncertainty in hurricane forecasts. How does your work with local officials compare? What could we do to improve winter weather communication?

Eosco: That's a big question! Local officials often need to make binary decisions. Will we close school or not? Sometimes there are different types of decisions though. Do we close, delay, or issue early dismissal of school? These types of decisions require an abundance of forecast information, some of which will have uncertainty. Local officials want to know what forecasters know, don't know, and what's uncertain.

When I ask local officials to characterize their uncertainty needs, the conversation almost immediately turns into this statement, "We want to know how confident the forecaster feels." The awesome challenge is: how do we use forecast probabilities to convey a forecaster's confidence? So we asked local officials how they want forecasters to convey that confidence. Their answer? Forecast trends. In other words, are the temperatures increasing or decreasing (especially if they are near 32°F)? Is the precipitation type trending all snow, all rain, ice, a mixture? Are the latest models in more agreement or less agreement than the previous model runs? Those sometimes hard-to-understand probabilities that meteorologists like can help answer these questions and provide forecasters new ways to visually show these trends. Cool!

Snow day in Hazleton, PA, 2/5/2018
Figure 2. Nine-year-old Sebastian Memis carries his saucer up a snow-covered hill near Mill Street in Hazleton, Pa., as he and his sister Gabby, 7, were sledding on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. The two were taking advantage of a day off from school after a storm dumped more than three inches of snow on the area. Image credit: Ellen F. O'Connell/Hazleton Standard-Speaker via AP.

Local officials also emphasize that the forecaster's voice is one of the best metrics to understand how confident a forecast is. I have found this across many hazard areas, not just winter weather. Local officials form trusted relationships with their NWS forecasters, and these officials know by the sound of a forecaster's voice how confident they are.

Improvements in winter weather communication include advancing our science to create new ways to show trends while also remembering that there is no one tool that replaces the value of a human forecaster. Providing decision support for winter weather requires new ways to show the forecast information as well as the ability to describe it.

Editor's note: In a Forbes essay published on January 26, Marshall Shepherd (University of Georgia) explores some of the sociological issues around school closures and how one school district is experimenting with “digital learning days” as an alternative to snow days.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

author image

Roger Turner

Roger Turner (@RogerTurner13) is a research fellow at the Science History Institute. He shares surprising images and stories from the history of science at https://picturingmeteorology.com.

rturner@sciencehistory.org

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