Schools move to make up days lost to cold
Tasked with deciding whether it's too cold or snowy for school, the Wadena-Deer Creek superintendent tracks the weather like a farmer during growing season:
"All the time," Lee Westrum said. "I just get into the habit of it."
Sometimes, he's able to make a decision the night before school. Most often, he's up before dawn, communicating with other area superintendents and the district's transportation director to see if it's safe for the buses to operate.
"We try to get the word out as early as possible," Westrum said.
So far this winter, WDC has lost four school days to excessive cold. Gov. Mark Dayton called off classes statewide on Jan. 6; the other three closures were decided locally.
WDC senior Paige Hartman said she spent her extra days off doing homework.
Sophomore Josh Brink was less ambitious. "(I did) not a whole lot I guess," he said. "Sleep. Maybe a little snowmobiling."
WDC has opted against making up Jan. 6. For two of the remaining cancellations, students will have school March 7 and 28, days they were scheduled to have off. The school board will decide how - or whether - to make up the fourth cold weather day at its upcoming monthly meeting.
There aren't any more possible make-up days within the school year, Westrum said, so the district might decide to add them at the end of the year. "That's probably the most common approach," he said.
The idea of an extended school year didn't appeal to Daryl Ann Webb, a WDC junior.
"I probably wouldn't show up," she said. "There's no point in going anyway."
Even with the cancellations, WDC is on pace to have more school hours than the state of Minnesota requires, so it's possible the school board could decline to make up the fourth day.
Verndale students have had two cancellations this winter. They made up the Jan. 6 closure on Jan. 21. Last week, the school board decided to hold classes April 17, trimming the Easter break by one day, to replace Jan. 27.
Sebeka and Bertha Hewitt students missed the same two days as Verndale. Bertha-Hewitt students will make up those closures on April 27 and May 23. Sebeka has three winter weather days built into the calendar at the end of the school year.
The weather has to be pretty brutal for Sebeka to call off school, said superintendent Dave Fjeldheim.
"I'll try to have school under any circumstance we can unless we are putting students at risk," he said.
Cancelling school is "a tough call," said Bertha-Hewitt superintendent Brian Koslofsky. "We don't make a snap decision one way or the other. We try to weigh all the factors."
Any time students can safely get to the building "we're going to try to hold school," said Verndale superintendent Paul Brownlow.
Westrum said he doesn't have a specific winter-weather cancellation formula - "It's not an exact science" - but when the wind chill dips below -50 degrees, it's appropriate to keep kids at home.
He said he puts a lot of stock in transportation director Tim Wohlert's recommendation.
Starting at 4 a.m., Wohlert considers a combination of temperature, visibility, the quantity and consistency of the snow and whether the roads have been plowed. He delivers the recommendation by 5 a.m.
"There's a lot of variables involved," Wohlert said.
Westrum said he hasn't heard a single complaint from parents about his cancellation decisions. "It's a part of life in Minnesota," he said. "It just happens here."
WDC high school/middle school principal Tyler Church said "parents have been very supportive ... They know we have kids safety in mind."
If parents feel it's unsafe for their children to get to school, WDC will grant them an excused absence. Adjacent school districts have similar policies.
Although it's been more than two weeks since schools were last cancelled, superintendents realize winter is far from over.
Sebeka's Fjeldheim pointed out that March is often the snowiest month. "Who knows what we may have ahead of us yet?"