Bad weather hard on local education

Marianne Gillespie

Some parents and children may be a little more optimistic in looking at the school calendar as far as the last day of school.

"In reality, the last day of school is May 30th. The way to look at it is we get out of school early if we don't need those emergency days," IVC Superintendent Chad Allison said.

As the school calendar notes, the last day of school is a half-day on May 22 unless emergency days are used.

"As we create (school calendars), by school code we are required to put in five emergency days," Allison said.

As of the end of last week, the district used four emergency days, meaning children's last day will be May 29 as of that time.

Students enjoyed a longer Christmas vacation with two snow days on Jan. 6-7 with a large snowfall and cold temperatures prompting even some businesses to at least close Jan. 6. Later on in the month, the abnormally cold temperatures closed the schools for two more days on Jan. 27-28.

If another emergency day is used, which may happen this week due to a forecasted snowstorm, then school could end on May 30 like what was originally on the school calendar.

If two more emergency days are used, school district boards can ask for an "act of God" waiver request that students not be required to make up the extra days after May 30, which would extend school into June.

Allison noted that if the IVC School Board seeks the request and is approved, it does not affect general state aid funding for the district.

Some school districts are trying to be creative with how to make up days and not have to extend the last day of school.

Some may choose to be in school on President's Day. Some could cut short spring break, but with families planning vacations, the IVC choir traveling to Disney World and the IVC baseball team heading to Memphis, Tenn., Allison said he did not think that was an option for the district.

This year has proven to be a "real challenge" for both Allison as the new IVC superintendent and superintendents around the area as the frigid temperatures have been as much of a threat as snow is in a typical year.

"When the roads aren't bad, everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to the temperature," Allison said.

He sent out an email in January to parents on a windchill graph that he was using to decide when to call off school.

Essentially, if the forecasted temperature, including the windchill, was colder than -30 degrees, then school would be out.

The "danger" level, Allison said, is at -34 degrees because the chances of frostbite increase from 30 minutes of uncovered skin to 10 minutes. With children walking to school or waiting at a bus stop, 10 minutes can be a normal timeframe.

Additionally, some buses have trouble starting with the cold, or if any broke down along a route, children could be left without heat.

"If we can get them in, we're fine in the buildings," Allison said.

The first day of severe cold on Jan. 23 that caused parents to question if children should be in school, Chillicothe, Peoria and Dunlap schools all were in session while some others were out.

Peoria County and nearby county superintendents can group text, Allison said, and try to work together when it comes to school cancellation, but sometimes they get stuck in a "Catch 22."

On one hand, the forecast may be inaccurate, and if superintendents are calling off school ahead of time so parents who work can make arrangements for childcare, they have to base their decision on a forecast.

"The challenge we have is when we try to accommodate parents and give them notice," Allison said.

On Jan. 26, the howling wind that night and projected low temperatures for the following day resulted in a day off school. When the superintendents talked to each other, they began staying closer to the -25 degree threshold instead of -30 degrees, Allison said. If the superintendents would have waited until making the call at 5:30 a.m. that Monday, they could have used real temperature figures and the forecast, Allison said.

Adding to the weather complexity, the district's phone notification system has had some problems. It is connected with the Lumen software that allows parents to see their children's grades and updates from the district. About 1,700 calls go out to parents when school is called off for the district's 2,200 students.

"We know the numbers are in (Lumen), but in some it's not calling the primary guardian," Allison said of parent's phone numbers.

The technological problem even plagued Allison with sending out an email the weekend before Jan. 6. He said he sent an email to parents saying that school may not be in session on that day and that they should make plans for that possibility. The only problem was, Allison said, parents did not get the email, making it look like he called off school at the last minute.

Allison said he can use either his cellphone or computer to activate the notification system, and in trying to figure out the problem, officials are looking into whether it matters which interface he uses or what the glitch is.

Parents who have not been receiving the notifications should call the school, Allison said, as district officials are working to resolve the problem.