When the leadership of a school system makes a decision about whether to cancel classes because of bad weather, there will be criticism. Another truism of making such decisions is that mistakes will be made, resulting in even harsher criticism.
Given these realities, those making the decisions should always be prepared to make their mistakes on the side of safety. Over the past several years in Harford County, the practice has been to err on the side caution, sometimes resulting in canceling schools on days when the weather ends up not posing a hazard.
Snow days built into the academic calendar end up being used more quickly under such a philosophy, and the payoff is hard to measure. There's no way to keep a running tally of school bus accidents that have been prevented.
Last week, however, as the number of snow days available in the school system calendar was dwindling, the pressure seemed to be on to make a decision that would result in the saving of a day. On Monday, Feb. 3, the weather forecast was for snow developing in the morning and peaking around noontime. No snow was falling when a decision had to be made on sending the first wave of buses out to take high school students to their classes, but right around the time the last students were arriving for class, rain switched over to snow.
And the snow stuck to the roads, making driving a real hazard.
Now in the past, from time to time, the school system has made the call to cancel classes based on weather forecasts, generally, though not always on days when snow or ice ended up making roadways dangerous.
No forecast-based decision was made that Monday, and that ended up being the first in a series of bad calls.
The second bad call came when the school system decided to send students home early, again disregarding the forecast, that called for snow to come to an end shortly after noon, which is exactly what happened. The problem was that closing schools early put buses filled with children on the streets just as the snow was ending, but at a time when roads were at their worst.
Students were back in school Tuesday, but another storm had iced roads Tuesday night, and last Wednesday classes were, appropriately, canceled.
Then came Thursday. It was cold, but the ice from Wednesday morning had been largely dealt with. Even so, classes were canceled. It was less an error on the side of caution than a penance for having put buses on the streets on Monday.
The school system's explanation: conditions that resembled those that followed a hurricane, with downed trees and power lines – several schools did not have power – and roads that were cut off in places, according to the school system's chief of administration.
School officials received a flurry of criticism from the general public posts on various Internet sites. There even has been talk of establishing a northern Harford zone for days when snow conditions are bad in the north end but passable elsewhere. The reality is the calls made last week were bad all around, and having a northern weather district wouldn't have made a difference.
It's been a long winter, with the first days off for snow coming in December. It appears school officials are feeling pressure to stay open, because there are no more snow days in the calendar, and another storm is already brewing for later Wednesday into Thursday. The number of snow days left on the calendar, however, should never be a consideration when deciding whether to close.
Safety should but the first and only concern, and if a mistake is made, it should be on the side of safety. This point can't be made too strongly, especially given the reality that it appears we're stuck in an unpleasant weather pattern.