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Deciding to call a snow day “isn’t an exact science”

Old Man Winter walloped Fort Erie and the rest of the Niagara region with his wintry weather mood.

He used many environmental factors at his disposal including snow, cold temperatures, and freezing rain to make life’s daily outdoor activities a bit of an obstacle course.

In the last several weeks, Niagara students have seen three snow days, where schools were shut down and four days where schools remained open and ready for students but school buses were cancelled.

When schools stay open, but buses aren’t on the road, parents have an option to drop their kids off at school themselves.

Sandy White, a retired teacher and former superintendent of the Niagara South Board of Education who resides in the Greater Fort Erie area, recently expressed her concerns on social media about what happens when the municipality experiences blizzard conditions.

When buses aren’t running, teachers are still expected to report to school and crossing guards are still expected to stand at their posts, “often having one or two students show up,” she said.

She said the process is unfair and said Fort Erie often endures more harsh winter weather elements than other parts of the region.

As a teacher, she recalls one of her first winter weather experiences was during the Blizzard of 1977. White was teaching at General Vanier, now known as Peace Bridge Public School. There were rumblings of lake effect snow.

“In those years, we didn’t have the tech support now. We would listen to the radio. Nothing had been cancelled so off to school we went,” she said.

“The snow began, continued to get worse and finally they sent the buses early.”

The weather became so bad, White said the teachers wouldn’t allow students who usually walked home to leave unless their parents came for them.

White recalled that at around 2 p.m., her school’s principal sent all the teachers home and stayed with the remaining children as they waited for their parents to arrive.

“I hadn’t even gone to school with a hat that morning. I didn’t realize we were going to get it with this,” she says, and adds, “It was so bad I had to go through the kids’ lost and found to find clothes. I had to tie a sweater around my head.”

A fellow teacher offered to drive White home, however, the weather was so bad at that point that White was let out a few blocks from her home, and she had to walk the rest of the way.

She managed to make it home safely, but she says it’s just one example of how quickly the weather can change, and without warning.

The Niagara Catholic District School Board’s Director of Education, John Crocco, explained there are many factors that determine whether to close schools in the event of inclement weather.

It “isn’t an exact science.” he said. “Our focus is the health and safety of students and staff and that’s paramount.”

Sometimes the weather may not seem bad before 5:45 a.m. when they must make a call, but later in the day that’s when the bad weather hits, making it unsafe.

Other times, bad weather might be expected but never arrives.

“Our decision with regard to transportation and school closures, for any area or the entire system, is one that’s thoughtful and based on the information that we have at the time we make the decision.”

When buses aren’t running, parents are usually notified through an e-mail system if they’ve signed up for it. The information is also provided through social media and online.

When schools are closed, phone calls go out, informing parents that students do not have school that day.

The director of education said Niagara Catholic, along with the District School Board of Niagara and Niagara Student Transportation Services considers information provided by Environment Canada, local weather stations, the Niagara Regional Police, the Ontario Provincial Police.

He said Niagara is unique in that all parts of the region may experience weather patterns different.

“When we make these decisions, we’re mindful of the impact this has on students, families and staff as they make their plans, Crocco stated. “We always recommend to families to have an alternative plan in place in the event of transportation delays, cancellations or school closures.”

When buses aren’t running, but schools remain open, Crocco said the policy for the school board calls for teachers to attempt arriving for work at their’s or the nearest school possible.

He also said Niagara Catholic is nearing the end of a process to review the school board’s inclement weather policy and employee policy and families have been given the opportunity to provide feedback.

Brett Sweeney, a spokesperson for the DSBN, echoed Crocco’s sentiments that student and staff safety is the number one priority for the public school board.

He said the impact of closing schools has a “tremendous impact” on parents, who need to get to work.

“That’s something that’s taken into consideration a decision to close a school is made.”

Niagara Student Transportation Services (NSTS) transports 32,000 students on 560 buses across Niagara each school day.

“We average less than two days per year over the last 10 years of transportation cancellations,” Lori Powell, executive director of NSTS, said.

This school year has been somewhat unusual as there have been seven student transportation cancellations, she commented.

According to Powell, some years there were no student transportation cancellations.

“We are able to do partial cancellations if necessary. However, during secondary exams and extreme cold, there is too much risk with partial cancellations because we have buses that travel (throughout) several municipalities.”

NSTS starts it’s process long before students wake, typically around 4 a.m.

“We have five bus companies and NSTS gathering data on actual and forecasted weather and testing actual road conditions across the Region,” Powell explained.

“We consult Environment Canada forecasts and other weather sources to try to make the best decision for Niagara based on both the morning ride to school and our ability to get students home safe at the end of the day.”

NSTS then takes that information and makes a recommendation to the school board based on the data they’ve accumulated for cancellations and closures.

“Our goal is to advise the public by 6 a.m. or sooner, if possible, of the decision,” she said.

When making the decision to cancel transportation NSTS considers it must ask students to be at their bus stops five minutes prior to their scheduled pick-up. That’s why through its website, and direct e-mail notifications to subscribers, NSTS notifies the public of delays greater than 10 minutes on specific routes.

“We are ok running with delays, but when we project delays will be too numerous or too long in terms of duration, we need to consider cancelling transportation,” Powell said.

“The big difference of our decision compared to the decisions of an individual is that individuals can augment their route to keep on main roads driving A to B and leave extra time for the commute.”

She said NSTS bus drivers are professionals and trained to drive-in all-weather conditions; however, we also need to consider that when we commit to run, we need to service all scheduled bus stops and while sometimes main roads may be in good shape, rural or neighbourhood roads may not be safe.

“We also need to consider a bus driver can get to their first bus stop on time, but they cannot start early because we will miss students,” she said.

When it comes to the freezing rain and the extreme cold Mother Nature unleashed on Fort Erie and across the Niagara Region, it has a major impact on how buses run.

“There is so much safety equipment on a school bus, i.e. stop arm, that we need to function to operate. If this equipment is frozen or inoperable, we need to cancel,” Powell said.

“We want to provide transportation each day to support the students and schools in Niagara. These decisions are tough because we know we are impacting education, ultimately in our line of business though student safety is our top priority and when the information gathered supports cancelling transportation, we need to make the hard decision.”

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