Centre County braces as the worst of the polar vortex effects are about to hit

A polar vortex is bringing frigid air from the Arctic into much of the United States this week, causing school closings and travel hazards throughout Centre County.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the temperature was 10 degrees with a wind chill of minus 5, as measured by National Weather Service State College. Wind gusts were at 40 mph, and a hazardous snow squall came through the area around 9 a.m., rapidly decreasing visibility on the interstates.

Temperatures and wind chills were expected to keep dropping from there until Thursday afternoon.

With wind chills from minus 20 to minus 25 degrees and 15-minute frostbite times forecast from 10 p.m. Wednesday to 4 a.m. Thursday, several Centre County schools and organizations canceled class, meetings and activities for Thursday.

Penn State had class Wednesday, but announced a 4:30 p.m. dismissal and cancellation on Thursday. The announcement came after an online petition calling for the classes to be canceled garnered more than 10,000 signatures. Several branch campuses are also closed. The Bryce Jordan Center ticket office will reopen at 4 p.m. Thursday, ahead of the men’s basketball game with Purdue.

State College Area School District also had class on Wednesday, but canceled all after-school activities, with the exception of the Community Education Extended Learning Program. That program, however, is canceled Thursday, as the district decided to close all schools and cancel all after-school activities and late bus runs.

The district offices will run on a three-hour delay for administrative, office, clerical and printing staff.

“Weather decisions are difficult to make, and the safety of our students is always paramount,” Superintendent Bob O’Donnell wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website and social media pages.

O’Donnell explained that in cases of extreme cold, the district first considers a 2- or 3-hour delay if the temperature falls below minus 5 degrees, and wind chill below minus 20, according to NWS data.

NWS meteorologist Michael Colbert said it’s expected to be minus 7 degrees with a minus 20 wind chill by the time most people wake up around 6 or 7 a.m. Thursday. With that wind chill, frostbite times are about 30 minutes for exposed skin, Colbert said.

O’Donnell said the district consults with weather services including NWS and AccuWeather to make its weather-related cancellation and delays decisions, but uses the NWS wind chill data over AccuWeather’s RealFeel, because wind chill takes frostbite times into consideration.

Wind chill, according to NWS, describes the rate of heat loss on the human body resulting from the combined effect of low temperature and wind.

With temperatures that cold, not only is there a risk to students’ safety, but it also causes transportation challenges, as those temperatures are too low for the amounts of fuel additive allowed by state to mix with school bus diesel fuel to prevent it from congealing, the district said.

As it was set to be held Wednesday evening at the State College Area High School, Centre Region Parks and Recreation’s Open Space public meeting was postponed until 7 p.m. Feb. 6. CRPR also canceled its Wednesday evening Zumba and cardio dance classes.

The first of the Musser Gap to Valleylands community conversations, scheduled for Thursday evening, is postponed to 6 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County at 780 Waupelani Drive.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, as well as Our Lady of Victory, will be closed on Thursday. OLV ran as normal on Wednesday, but canceled all after-school activities. St. Joe’s, though the building was closed, had a virtual day on Wednesday, and plans to do the same Thursday.

Bellefonte, Bald Eagle and Philipsburg-Osceola area school districts were all closed on Wednesday. They will all remain closed on Thursday.

Penns Valley had class as usual on Wednesday, but announced all schools would close at 9 p.m. and reopen on Friday. All after-school sporting events on Wednesday were canceled, including the girls’ basketball game at Bellefonte, and the home wrestling event for District 6 Duals. Wrestling has been rescheduled to 2:30 p.m. Friday in the new gym.

Earlier in the day, Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith addressed parents, explaining how decisions to cancel or delay school are made. As a general rule, Griffith said that school will remain open on cold days when all of the following conditions are met:

  • temperatures and wind chill conditions do not create a dangerous situation for students exposed to the elements for more than 10 minutes;
  • heat in the building is functional;
  • and temperatures don’t affect the running of bus or van operations.

The district first considers delays before cancellations, and prefers to make its decisions in the morning, when more accurate weather data is available.

“We will call for school delays only if temperatures are expected to increase measurably over the time of delay,” Griffith said. “If conditions continue to be dangerous for longer than any delay can rectify, we will close school.”

With the extreme cold, Gregg Township reminded residents that the fire station at 106 Water St. and the Old Gregg School Community and Recreation Center at 106 School St. in Spring Mills are designated emergency shelters, should anyone have problems with loss of power or heat.

In the Centre Region, trash and recycling pickup will run as usual on Thursday morning, but the Advanced Disposal drivers might be taking different routes to get out of the cold quicker, so people are encouraged to make sure their trash is to the curb by 7 a.m. to help make collection go quicker, the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority said in a post. Those who can keep their recycling for another week are encouraged to do so, but not required, as recycling pickup will continue.

CATA is running on its full-service lite schedule through Thursday. There will be no HC, NE,VE, RC, RP, WE or GL service until Friday.

Frostbite, which is damage to body tissue from cold, causes the loss of feeling around the face, fingers or toes, according to Those who start to experience numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin, firm or waxy skin should go to a warm room, soak in warm water or use body heat to warm up. Do not massage or use a heating pad.

Hypothermia, a life-threatening condition caused by loss of body heat, can cause shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness. Anyone exhibiting those symptoms or a body temperature lower than 95 degrees should get to a warm room immediately and start warming the center of the body — chest, neck, head, and groin — first, and seek medical help.

The dangers of extreme cold extend beyond humans. Pets and livestock are also at risk when temperatures plummet. Under the state’s Libre Law, dogs cannot be tethered outside for more than 30 minutes when temperatures dip below 32 degrees.

“Cold weather doesn’t only impact people, it also can cause distress for companion animals and livestock,” state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a release. “Whether the animals you care for are homed in the house or in the barn, we remind you to take the necessary steps to ensure their safety during the intense cold.”

Redding encourages livestock and pet owners to protect animals form the wind; provide adequate, dry bedding; keep animals clean and dry; change water often and keep animals hydrated; provide additional feed including hay and grain; and never leave animals in parked cars.

Anyone who witnesses animal abuse can contact the Central PA Humane Society at 942-5402.

The NWS wind chill advisory is in effect until noon Friday. After that, Colbert said the temperatures should “warm up” to 5 to 10 degrees in the afternoon, with winds chills at minus 10 to minus 15.

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