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No School? How MCPS Makes Weather Closures

winter weather (Savannah)

On January 7, a polar vortex and sub-zero wind chills forced nearly every major school system in the Washington, DC area to close except one: Montgomery County Public Schools.

Students caused an uproar on Twitter, accusing administrators of employing preposterous and capricious tactics with regards to weather-related decisions. The media weighed in, parents voiced concerns over the welfare of their children, and medical experts warned against frostbite, but MCPS insisted on opening schools on time. Seeing this decision as potentially hazardous, NBC News even came to Richard Montgomery High School when the morning buses pulled into the loop, interviewing students about the dangers in attending school during the rare chill.

Loudoun school closing 1:22

Many MoCo students compare MCPS school closures to closures in other counties, such as Loundoun County in northern Virginia.

MCPS closure policies have long confounded students, parents, and teachers alike. The MoCo Student therefore sought to analyze and deconstruct any enigma surrounding MCPS closure policies.

During inclement weather, administrators gather up-to-the-minute information from a variety of sources, including the National Weather Service, Accu-Weather, and the news media. MCPS reports that administrators also conduct “actual inspection of roads, school driveways, and sidewalks throughout the county.”

MCPS further claims that “weather conditions in surrounding counties are also gathered and factored into forecasting conditions for Montgomery County students and considered for those students attending non-public schools in other areas.” An advisory board often makes a recommendation to Superintendent Joshua Starr based on the most severe conditions throughout the county, keeping in mind the hundreds of students who must travel outside their regular school zones every day. Nonetheless, Dr. Starr has the ultimate say in determining whether schools are to be closed.

William Kraegel, a teacher at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center, indicated that “measurements of snow accumulations are done here at the Smith Center. We have staff here who get up before dawn to survey the weather.”

However, many students find MCPS’ closure practices confusing at best. “You never know with MCPS,” says Jason, a student at Churchill High School. “Their decision-making almost seems sporadic.”

“I don’t understand why MCPS closed school for three inches of snow accumulation yet when the temperatures hit a record low, we still have to come on time,” said Katherine, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School. “Not even a two-hour delay.”

Nonetheless, many educators look unfavorably toward school closures. “The kids celebrate when they wake up, check their cell phones, and discover that they can go back to sleep. But when they come back to school they are crammed with work,” noted Jon Goetz, a Physics and Calculus teacher at Richard Montgomery High School. “Oftentimes the snow days always fall right before the final exams, causing the students to complain even more about how much work they have to catch up.” According to MCPS Student Affairs Coordinator Karen Crawford, “students often protest when they discover that MCPS will remain open in inconvenient weather, but what they tend to ignore is how needed schools are to some families. Many students find schools warmer than their homes. Even larger numbers rely on the FARM plan to receive their only meals for the day.”

On another note, the school contingency calendar mandates that the school year be prolonged by one day after five days of closure due to weather-related emergencies. Each additional day of closure after the five courtesy days will extend the school year by one to five days. At present, MCPS has more than exhausted its five allocated days of closure, and can expect to prolong the 2014 school-year anywhere from June 13 to June 19. However, state education authorities sometimes grant waivers against prolonging the school-year, as seen in 2010, when two full weeks of school closure due to a snow storm didn’t result in any extensions.

With regard to timing, many students have long lamented the school system’s usual 5 a.m. notification time, believing that administrators purposefully employ dilatory tactics to preclude their chances of procrastinating on homework or sleeping in. However, MCPS argues that the seemingly harsh procedure is necessary to allow a routine 3 a.m. road inspection.

Dana Tofig, Executive Director of the MCPS Public Information Office, reiterates that “we do rely on information from local media, but we also get out on the roads. We gather a tremendous amount of information before making a decision.”

Article by Mahya Bigdeli, MoCo Student staff writer

Image by Savannah Du, MoCo Student Graphics editor

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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