Centre County school districts make different choices on weather delays

cminemye@centredaily.comJanuary 28, 2014 

As head of transportation for State College Area School District, Van Swauger pays close attention to the weather.

And he understands if some parents were left scratching their heads Tuesday morning, when Swauger’s district and Bellefonte Area were running on two-hour delays, while Penns Valley opened on time, and Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola were closed.

“The temperatures across the county were so different (Tuesday),” Swauger said. “Jeff (Miles) at Bald Eagle had Snow Shoe, and it was minus 7 degrees up there.”

“We made different decisions today, but we’re all looking for the safety of our kids,” Miles, the BEA superintendent, said.

On those winter-weather days, school officials are up early checking forecast websites and getting together for a conference call just after 5 a.m. to compare notes.

If there’s snow or ice, they reach out to county and municipal emergency crews while PennDOT roads data are consulted.

By late Tuesday evening, Philipsburg-Osceola, State College, Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Area had announced two-hour delays for Wednesday, their websites showed. St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy and South Hills School of Business and Technolgoy did the same. Penns Valley had not announced a change.

“We make our decisions based on what we know,” Miles said, “and the predictions, and conversations with people who do know.”

State College Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said there is no trigger temperature for a delay or closure. Low single digits alone won’t do it, but adding a wind-chill factor, which is what happened Tuesday, can prompt a delay.

“I’m not an expert, but we bring people into the conversation who are, and we always want to err on the side of caution,” O’Donnell said. “Some people disagreed with the decision we made. Some thought we should not be in school. And some thought we should have been on time.”

“We all are looking at the same thing, and that’s keeping our children safe,” Miles said. “It’s about not having them out there exposed to the elements. With these very cold temperatures and then you throw in the wind, it can be pretty brutal.”

State College has about 100 buses carrying more than 7,300 students daily to and from the district’s many properties, and also making stops at private schools such as Grace Prep and St. Joseph’s.

Swauger said sometimes it gets too cold for the buses to operate properly, which can affect how long students spend outside.

“You don’t want kids waiting in the cold for half an hour because the bus broke down,” he said.

“We have 800 to 1,000 walkers we have to take into consideration,” Swauger added. “If they spend a half hour walking to school, you can get concerned about frostbite if they’re not dressed well. So we have to take all of those things into consideration.”

Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith said his district made the call to open on time because “there was less wind in Penns Valley than in some other places.”

“It does differ from time to time,” he said. “I did not believe that a two-hour delay was justifiable.”

He said parents are notified regardless of the result, through email and phone messages.

“All of us are trying to make the best decisions we can with the information we have,” Griffith said.

Late Monday, Swauger said, State College officials were seeing temperature predictions for the next morning that varied by as much as 5 degrees from one source to another.

And early Tuesday, while most parents and children still slept, the call was made to open two hours late at State College — even as some neighboring districts were going different directions.

“I’m a little on the conservative side,” O’Donnell said. “But that’s because we have 7,000 kids to think about, and only three of them are mine.”

Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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