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A chat with Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Swift about snow day protocols

Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – This year saw a higher-than-average number of snow days for the Ann Arbor Public Schools District due to inclement weather, including a subzero polar vortex and subsequent statewide emergency.

According to a report released by the district, a total of eight snow days were declared due to ice, snow and dangerously low temperatures. 

I recently sat down with AAPS Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift, who addressed concerns brought forward by parents.

The following interview has been edited and condensed

What goes into the decision process of calling a snow day?

"The process that we use is described in the protocol, which is posted on our website. It's the same process we use every time there’s even a question of weather. We’re going to monitor the weather conditions overnight. The driving team, which is our Durham bus partners, will hit the streets at about 3 a.m. We cover 128 square miles in the city of Ann Arbor and eight townships, so they’re not going to drive every square foot of that, of course, but they are going to get out in all the main areas of our district.

"That report will come to me from the assistant superintendent at about 4:30 a.m. That’s the same time when the area superintendents will convene. We are using overnight reports from the county road commission, from the city of Ann Arbor and from all the associated pieces and parts. At the 4:30 a.m. meeting we’ll confirm with the other superintendents, and our goal is to have a decision made by 5 a.m.

"That communication then goes to our director of communications and we get that out. The first place folks can always get it is on Twitter. And then it will go through text. If folks haven’t signed up for their texts, they should do so. It will go through email, it will go through the phone call. We’ve tried to let go of that, but folks want to keep it so it’s still there. It will (also) go on all the major news outlets at that time. 

"When we think about conditions and rationale, a little bit of what we shared with the community last week is what we have to think about this idea that we have about 5,000 students who are on some mode of transportation other than walking or being with their parents. So, about 4,000 are on our 113 bus routes. About 500, give or take, are on AAATA buses. And then about 100, give or take, are on taxis or public transportation of some sort.

Courtesy: Ann Arbor Public Schools
Courtesy: Ann Arbor Public Schools

 

"So, when folks think about getting themselves to work on a winter morning, that’s a different question than the question we have to answer. The question we have to answer is around neighborhood and secondary roads, because our buses travel the distance of farther than driving from here to Anchorage, Alaska, and back, each day. And many of those miles are on secondary or neighborhood roads, or are rural roads out in our township areas.

"The question we’re answering is different than: Can I get on the main thoroughfare and get to my office? It’s: Can we put students on bus stops (and) can we navigate this kind of endeavor on a winter morning? Safety is our number one priority. And if we can’t do it safely, we’re not going to have school that day."

What about school delays? Some people want to know why delays aren’t practiced, especially if road conditions clear up throughout the day. 

"I'm glad you asked about that. We covered that in our update on Wednesday as well. We have long been asking our parents, our staff and our community about the possibility of a delayed start. It is popular and common in other states. It is not common in Michigan. So folks who say, 'Everybody around you has that,' that is not true. There are not any districts in southeast Michigan that use a delayed start.

"So, if we were to go that way, we would be the only district. I’ve tried over the years to get support from other districts around us. We often have a county approach, and we do not have will among any of our surrounding districts, so we would be the only ones.

"We have put that question, 'Do you prefer a delayed start?' on our spring school climate survey. That survey is responded to by more than 16,000 folks and we do not have a clear directive from the community that that is their preference. One camp of parents says, 'We want to make one plan. We want to do that early, or preferably the night before. We don’t want to have to think about a plan for 10 a.m.' The other camp of parents would like the delayed start. So we have a real split in the community on that. 

Snow on Ann Arbor's North Main Street (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Snow on Ann Arbor's North Main Street (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


 

"This particular winter, the 8 days that we’ve taken -- we’ve done the research on it -- and it would have helped us on about one day. And what we know from delayed start -- I worked in a district for 15 years where we used it, so I have a lot of experience with it -- is often between that initial call early and the time to send buses out at 8 a.m., the weather could get worse.

"So sometimes a delay goes to a close, which tends to really disrupt the family even more. We’re including the question again this spring. We’re asking that if folks have an opinion, share it. And if you don’t, also share that so that we have clear feedback on that. Our goal is to always be safe number one, number two to be responsive in our community.

"The other challenge with the delayed start is that so many of our staff drive in from other areas. So that is a component, too, that I’ve not had support among staff for delayed start. We have about 4,000 folks who need to get here every day to open our doors."

On the flipside of that, what's your stance on early release?

"We try to never do early release. We’ve done it once in the last six years. It is very risky, particularly for our most vulnerable families. The golden rule of public school is: Don’t get them there if you’re not sure you can get them home at their regular schedule.

"We have students as young as 3 years of age being dropped off on buses and we’re simply not going to change that schedule in the middle of the day unless there’s a major unanticipated emergency.

"We just feel so strongly that our children have schedules. Many families won’t check their media during the day. So we try to avoid early dismissals at all costs."

There’s a rumor going around that the Ann Arbor Public Schools does not own the buses and therefore cannot call a delayed start. 

"The Ann Arbor Public Schools owns all of our 131 buses. That has always been the case and that will not change. Those are our assets and we determine the schedule. We do have challenges with delayed starts, which I’ve shared, but it’s not around the buses."

What will happen with the leftover days? What’s the plan?

"We have taken eight days. Two of the days were a statewide emergency declared by the governor, so I believe every district in Michigan was closed on those days. You can see how that lines up against recent years. Folks that say, 'It’s just getting worse and worse, Ann Arbor is calling more and more,' -- it's simply not true. In the last three years, we’ve called six days total. So, this does change with the cycle of the weather. 

"In context with other districts in Michigan, we are very much on the lower end of this. Unfortunately, many neighboring districts had to call last Friday due to icy roads. We were in that day, we were in on many days that surrounding districts have closed, and we’re very grateful for that. We want to have school every day that we possibly can.

"The first six days are automatically forgiven (by the state). Then, we can apply for three days under a waiver, which we’ve had to do before and we’ll do at the end of this winter.

"For folks that have asked, 'Can we go longer to try to make up the time?' it doesn’t work that way. The credit is by days, not by times. There are time requirements also, but we’ve met those and you cannot make up the day requirement through the addition of minutes. They’re two separate requirements.

"There is pending legislation to forgive the governor’s declared days, and that would supply three days of relief. We did not call school on Friday, Feb. 1. That was a day when that part of the parents who wanted to be safe, thought we should have called it and we didn’t. But it would help us on the 29th and 30th with that. At this point, there’s nothing to do and nothing to worry about. We’re good. And we’ll see over the next five or six more weeks and keep an eye on it. 

"Probably the hardest thing for folks to understand is the dynamic of ice. Because in some parts of our area it may not look like there’s much ice. Ice is particularly hard for buses. If we get the roads plowed they can make it in the snow, but ice is a different story. So people should be mindful that when there’s a layer of ice that is particularly treacherous -- for all of us. We have to think about teen drivers and we have thousands of those. We have to think about the buses getting into secondary roads. But if secondary roads aren’t done, we can’t do our business, which is to get into those neighborhoods and get children. It’s hard for folks who live in an area that’s cleared to understand."

What about incidents where parents who live in those more rural areas opt to stay home? If it’s a case where they might not feel safe driving their child, is that accepted?

"I'm glad you said that. I always remind parents that that decision to attend school, whether it’s on a snow day, an icy day, or whether it’s on a 95-degree day, that decision rests with the parent. If there’s ever a time where a parent doesn’t feel safe, they should make that decision that’s their decision to make. They always remind me that it’s harder for them to make that decision if it runs counter to our decision. I get that. But at the same time, the ultimate responsibility for a child’s safety is with a parent."

For more information, see the AAPS 2018-19 guide to inclement weather closures, the Inclement Weather School Closing Protocol and Winter Weather Guidelines.

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