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Decisions on closing schools difficult for superintendents

Both extreme cold and snow could result in a decision to close schools. Area schools have been closed for four days this winter because of sub-zero temperatures. | File photo
Both extreme cold and snow could result in a decision to close schools. Area schools have been closed for four days this winter because of sub-zero temperatures. | File photo

The closing of schools Jan. 28 marked the fourth time in the past few weeks that extremely cold weather kept children home.

Superintendent Renee Schuster of Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Elementary District 181 said the decision to close schools is at times a difficult one. She makes the final call about closing schools in District 181.

“The safety of our students and staff is my top priority in these decisions,” she said. “At times, it is safer to be home and some times it is safer to be at school. This is particularly true when the weather develops after the students and staff have arrived at school.”

Schuster said she consults with superintendents of other school districts in DuPage County, especially Hinsdale High School District 86, before making a final decision about closing schools because of weather. Road condition reports and weather forecasts are important tools in making such decisions.

“Weather forecasts are just that — forecasts,” Schuster said. “It is prudent to wait until we see the weather developing. In many cases, we make these decisions between 3 and 5 in the morning the day of a snow day. When possible, we like to give parents more advance notice and make the decision the night before.

Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom of Butler Elementary District 53 in Oak Brook agreed safety is the top priority in making decisions about closing schools because of weather. She makes the final decisions for her district.

“The sub-zero temperatures are of great concern to us, knowing that many children are exposed to the elements while waiting at the bus stop,” Wennstrom said.

Dr. Clara Carls, a family practice physician with Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, said she believes it’s a good idea for schools to be closed when students otherwise would have to wait outside for school buses.

“The extreme cold is dangerous,” Carls said. “If you’re good about bundling up so that you don’t have any extremities exposed, you’ll do OK for a short time. But you can get frostbit or frostnip very quickly.”

Carls said the extreme cold can be even more dangerous for anyone with underlying medical issues.

Wennstrom said temperature, site conditions at schools, road conditions, and the status of bus operations all are considerations in making decisions about closing schools.

“It is important to remember that weather conditions may improve or deteriorate after a determination is made,” she said. “It’s not an easy decision and one that has an impact not only on teachers and students, but families and working parents.”

Both Wennstrom and Bridget McGuiggan, director of communications for District 181, said the decision to close school Jan. 27-28 was not done based on the precedent of having no school because of the cold weather Jan. 6-7.

“All four of the dates where students were not in attendance had the same issue: unsafe weather related conditions,” Wennstrom said.

Sandy Martin, former superintendent of District 53, said the most number of days that District 53 schools were closed because of weather, going back to when she started in 2003, is two. In District 181, Schuster said veteran staff members remember school being closed for no more than three days because of weather in one school year.

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