Meteorologists may tip balance in Harford school weather zone debate

Professional weathermen could tip the balance in the ongoing debate about creating a separate weather zone for northern Harford County school closing and delay decisions.

Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service are in the approval phases of creating a separate weather forecasting zone for the northern end of Harford County, Meteorologist-in-charge James Lee, at NOAA's Sterling, Va. office, which covers Harford County, said.

At the very least, approval of the new forecast zone, which is likely to come this summer, will add fuel to the continuing firestorm about how Harford school officials handle inclement weather incidents.

Following a harsh winter in which Harford County public school students missed 11 full days of classes, there continues to be an outcry from parents in the northern end of the county about the dangerous road conditions in their area and the need for special consideration during bad weather.

School system data, however, shows that northern Harford area students don't necessarily stay home and miss the full day of classes during a two-hour morning delay for bad weather any more than do students in the southern half of the county.

Those numbers aren't likely to appease parents, who think school officials should split the county into two zones for dealing with weather delays and cancellations, similar to what Baltimore County Public Schools has done for years with its northern, or Hereford, zone. They do, however, help buttress long-standing arguments from public school leaders against weather zoning.

Still, in the wake of the large number of missed days and like number of weather related late starts or early dismissals this school year, Harford Superintendent Barbara Canavan did say she would study the issue of creating a northern Harford weather zone.

And, while Canavan's own statistics may still support leaving things as they stand, the federal government's meteorologists are on the verge of saying differences in topography and climatology between northern and southern Harford deserve consideration.

New forecast zone

According to NOAA's Lee, northern Harford, which consists of Pylesville, Norrisville and Whiteford, has elevations with a 500 to 1,000 foot difference from places in the middle and southern parts of the county, such as Abingdon, Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

"The climate is dramatically different as you get closer to the Chesapeake Bay," Lee said. "Because of the climatological difference, we think we can provide a much better forecast [with the separate weather zone]."

During a snow occurrence, he explained, Aberdeen or Havre de Grace could see one or two inches of snow, and the northern end, as much as six or eight inches, although the variances aren't always so great.

The proposed new weather zone is "approximated" to split the county at Route 147 (Harford Road) and the Baltimore County border along a line drawn northwestward to the Susquehanna River, Lee said.

NOAA has been working with Harford County emergency service officials since last winter to put the new plan in place, Lee said.

The new weather zone is expected to be approved this summer and would go into effect this coming winter, he said.

Stay home, or attend

During this school year, Harford schools opened two hours late for snow and winter weather-related problems nine days: Dec. 11, Jan. 6, Jan. 8, Jan. 10, Jan. 23, Jan. 24, Feb. 10, Feb. 18 and March 4, according to data provided by the school system.

In most of those instances, daily absentee rates at the northern Harford schools, Dublin Elementary, Jarrettsville Elementary, Norrisville Elementary, North Harford Elementary, North Harford Middle and North Harford High, were in line with those at the other county schools, according to their figures.

The average daily absentee rate for public school students is 5.24 percent, according to Jillian Lader, spokeswoman for Harford County Public Schools.

On Dec. 11, only one school, Jarrettsville Elementary, had an absentee rate above the average, at 6.93 percent.

North Harford Middle and High schools had above-average absentee rates of 6.51 percent and 7.07 percent, respectively, on Jan. 6, but were dramatically below absentee rates in Havre de Grace High School at 12.35 percent, Joppatowne High School at 11.43 percent and Edgewood High School at 10.13 percent.

Several northern Harford schools exceed the average absentee rate on Jan. 10: Dublin Elementary reported 8.17 percent absent, North Harford Middle 6.95 percent and North Harford High 9.15 percent. Edgewood Middle, Aberdeen High, Havre de Grace High and Joppatowne High, however, all had higher absentee rates that day.

The absentee rate skyrocketed across the county on Jan. 23, averaging 8.69 percent for all schools. North Harford High was the only northern area school, to break the 10 percent absentee rate that day, while 12 other schools elsewhere in the county had absentee rates around 10 percent.

On Feb. 3, a day when public school officials opened schools on time despite a forecast for heavy snow and then closed them after only two and a half hours, students from across the county stayed home in droves.

The countywide absentee rate for Feb. 3 was 14.24 percent, with the highest individual numbers in the northern Harford schools.

Norrisville Elementary's absentee rate was 84.7 percent on Feb. 3, while North Harford Elementary's was 53.16 percent.

North Harford High led high schools with 17.63 percent; however, Havre de Grace High, in the southeastern corner of the county, was next with 17.19 percent.

Call for action

As areas of the county, particularly northern Harford, saw mounds of snow covering rural dirt roads and icy conditions, parents took to social media to protest several of Canavan's decisions to open schools.

Many of them zeroed in on the Feb. 3 fiasco in calling for better forecasting, planning and procedures to deal with adverse weather situations, particularly in northern Harford.

County Councilman Chad Shrodes and other northern Harford parents created a Facebook group advocating for the school system to create "The North Harford Zone," which would give special consideration to their area of the county concerning delay and closure decisions. The Facebook page garnered more than 2,500 supporters.

The outcry prompted Canavan to suggest to school board members that they re-examine the northern Harford zone issue.

According to Lader, the superintendent and her staff plan to review a 2008 study that considered but ultimately rejected the creation of such a zone.

That study, conducted by the school board and then-superintendent Jacqueline Haas, determined that a "North Harford Zone" was not needed, concluding "the drawbacks and problems that would be caused to all of the students affected, especially to their learning environment, would outweigh any potential benefit."

According to the study, having such a designation would simply provide a level of flexibility to the superintendent in closing or delaying the opening of a particular school or group of schools on a day when weather deeply affected only the northern part of the county.

"The superintendent's direction is for the last study to be reviewed to determine if any revisions are warranted," Lader wrote in an email.

During the winter, Carol Frontera, a parent with two students in the Harford school system, created an online petition, through the website, asking Canavan and board of education members to consider the North Harford Zone to "generate additional flexibility to closing, delaying the opening or calling the early dismissal due to inclement weather in the North Harford area because of the difference in weather."

Frontera said recently she supports reconsidering the 2008 study and hopes the school board will set up a committee to study the issue that involves bus drivers, parents, bus companies and school administrators.

"It is my hope that a new feasibility study for a 'North Harford Zone' will result in a solution that makes sense not only for those of us in that part of the county, but the southern part as well," Frontera said. "Even if we don't have another winter like last year for a while, it would be prudent to be prepared."

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