Dear HUUSD Families,
It is very hard to believe that our warm, long fall season is officially over and our winter weather is right around the corner. Before we know it, the real snow will start to fall, and with all of its majestic beauty comes unpredictable weather. As you know, from time to time, it becomes necessary to delay the start of a school day or close school altogether. Sometimes, reasons other than snow, such as power outages or freezing rain and sleet that arrive at precisely the wrong time can alter the schedule of the day. Of course, safety is always my top priority when making these decisions.
The HUUSD spans approximately 42 miles from Warren to Waterbury, and oftentimes the conditions can be quite different from one end to the other. My years of experience tell me that decisions to close school or not are often met with dissatisfaction, and I am hoping to do what I can to implement the best possible procedures in our district. However, we all know that our Vermont weather can be very unpredictable and often changes drastically in a short period of time or at the last possible minute. Sometimes a best judgement call just needs to be made. There are no absolutes. I just try to do my best.
I would like to take this opportunity to share with our families how these decisions are made. In order to officially count a day for state purposes, certain criteria must be met. Transportation costs also factor into the decision. We try to avoid paying for an additional day of transportation which can be very expensive, and happens if elementary schools are open when the high school is closed and vice versa. I must also give some consideration to whether or not the faculty at large, commuting from all over the state, will be able to arrive safely and if we will adequately be able to staff the school for the day. These are some examples of why, if any three elementary schools need to delay or close, the entire supervisory union does the same. Also, if the high school needs to delay or close, then the entire supervisory union does as well. We need to have approximately 50% of our high school students attending to count the day, to maintain the regional calendar (including Central VT Career Center), to maintain adequate classroom instruction, and to be responsible with our busing costs and teaching contracts.
I rely heavily on management at the Bus Barn when it comes to evaluating the weather conditions. We have our cell phones set up for alert text messages from the State of Vermont. If an alert comes in, Jen at the Bus Barn, coordinator for First Student, our transportation contractor, begins gathering information from the National Weather Service. If the storm has already arrived, they check with as many of the town crews as they can make radio contact with for their feedback on their road conditions. Also, they/we regularly monitor the following sources for forecasts and predictions: The Weather Channel, WCAX, WPTZ, NOAA, Weather Underground, VT Agency of Transportation, Unisys Weather, Intellicast, CRWS, and last but not least … a stand outdoors!
Jen calls me, reports the information, and together we decide between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. how we will call the day. I try to begin my calls between 5:20-5:30 a.m. Laura Titus, my administrative assistant, calls the television and radio stations and sends out the Alert messages to our families. Michelle Baker, my CFO, is her back up. We try to get our notifications out between 5:45-6:00 so that we stop staff from getting on the roads and give families enough time to make alternative plans.
We need to call a delayed opening when a storm hits at a time such that the road crews cannot get their jobs done, and the roads simply are not ready for buses to travel on them on time. Like the majority of Vermont schools, a school delay is for 2 hours. Please plan accordingly. Delayed starts can be confusing for folks because often when you go out, the main roads will seem fine. Please remember that back roads can vary quite a bit. Sometimes a delay can then turn into a closing when more information from the road crews becomes known.
The temperature can sometimes cause a delay. Freezing rain will cause both delays and closings more often than snowfall. If temperatures dip to -25 degrees with the wind chill factor, we may delay if warranted and even close if the predictions should indicate because of the risk of frostbite while waiting at a bus stop. Luckily, we do not see many arctic Vermont days! Buses not starting in very cold weather has not been a problem because we keep them plugged in.
Your building principal should have sent home detailed information explaining the best ways for you to receive information about school closings and delays as soon as it becomes available. HUUSD uses a messaging and communication system that provides both email and phone messages, which seems to work well for everyone. It is very important that you notify the registrar in your school office whenever your email address or phone numbers change. In addition to your personal message contacts, local radio stations, WCAX and other television channels report all delays and closings statewide.
One of the most difficult calls has to do with power outages. We rely on the best predictions from the power company regarding the length of time we could be without power. It takes about 60 minutes just to get our bus drivers all back to the bus barn and students loaded to dismiss. Each circumstance is very individual. Harwood Union continues to remain the most often affected. We are currently pursuing an affordable solution that will allow us to install two small generators to operate the kitchen and bathrooms. That being said, all of our schools need to be equipped to remain without power or in a lockdown situation for multiple hours because all sorts of things could happen. We are revising and improving these “stay put” plans.
Lastly, short of a rapidly occurring blizzard, I will do most anything to not close school early once we are in full session. It is far more dangerous to send our students home to houses also without power, phones, and/or supervision. Many parents cannot make spur of the moment arrangements. Yes, it is less than desirable and the bathrooms can get gross, but our students are safe, supervised, and eventually will be fed at school. Parents can always make the decision to pick up their students early if our schools are in some sort of an unusual circumstance. Likewise, my job is to call a delay or closing based on the overall conditions of the entire district. If at any time, a parent feels that conditions are such at home that it feels unsafe, the parent can choose to keep his/her child home even if we open.
I would sincerely like to thank all of our HUUSD families in advance for your patience and understanding in dealing with power outages, delayed openings and/or closed school days. I realize how frustrating it can be if conditions seem fine at your house or on your roads when I call a delay or closing, or a power outage lasts longer than expected, and I keep school open. These decisions are made with all the best available information possible, in a very short period of time, and taking into account the entire six towns in our HUUSD community. I will do my very best to keep school open whenever I can, while maintaining the safety and security of our greatest resource, our children.
Brigid S. Nease
Superintendent of Schools