On Jan. 6th, snow fell across the area. Most regional schools delayed the start of school to see what impact the snow would have. Others canceled school altogether.
But Gregory Thornton, the new CEO of Baltimore City Schools (BCPSS), let classes go forward (as did Anne Arundel County's school superintendent). As roads became more and more treacherous, many students (perhaps wisely) stayed home. However, as Mr. Thornton points out, some actually came into school, risking life and limb on streets that had not been treated or plowed. In a district where many students take the city bus or walk to school, the conditions for their commute were unsafe at best.
So why risk opening the schools? In an apology issued by the school system, Mr. Thornton stated as a reason for opening city schools that he wishes to: "provid[e] the maximum amount of classroom instruction possible for our children to succeed each and every day, along with a safe environment, structured supervision, hot meals, and other supports." This, while a legitimate goal, deserves some scrutiny.
Many students in the district did not make it to class. This is of pedagogical concern. With more than half of their students missing for reasons beyond their control in some schools, teachers are put in a difficult position. Do they teach their lesson plan with the knowledge that most will not benefit from it, or do they place a bookmark in their plans and wait for students to return? The wise choice for many is the latter. The result is a lost day that, unlike a snow day, cannot be made up at the end of the year.
Mr. Thornton has a reputation of not doing snow days unless circumstances are extreme, If true, it shows that he has a great deal of hubris when it comes to operating BCPSS. Yet, if the schools were open because of Mr. Thornton's hubris, it is an easily more excusable reason than the alternative: He simply didn't know better.
Perhaps he did not know that the City of Baltimore in particular does not handle snow well, with plows and salt trucks in short supply. Many of the neighborhoods serviced by BCPSS would not likely see any plowing or treatment until at least a day following the snow. Or maybe he did not know how his students get to class: Most walk or take the city bus to school. A decision to open on schedule pitted those students against the elements as they waited at bus stops in low temperatures, or walked icy sidewalks.
Then there are the liability issues. As respondent superior, Mr. Thornton is responsible for district decisions that involve liability. In this regard, he has unquestionably failed. He exposed students, parents and his own staff to injuries on school grounds while narrowly avoiding the tragedy felt in a neighboring district. He didn't understand the unfortunate fact that many students are not properly outfitted for the icy temperatures that last week garnered "code blue" warnings from the city. Mr. Thornton does not even take heed when every single neighboring district delays the start of school (as they did January 7th) owing to the ice and bitter cold. In his mea culpa, Mr. Thornton notes that parents have the ultimate authority in keeping their kids home, but he says nothing of the faculty and staff who would face discipline if they did not show up for work.
The sign of truly great leadership is the ability to make an adjustment when your current plan fails. Mr. Thornton's current plan seems destined to failure. Yet, he has insisted on local TV that the district will stay the course when it comes to weather policy. In this, we must wait and see. Will Mr. Thornton remain rigid, either out of hubris or ignorance? Or will he adjust to Baltimore and lead its schools into the light?
Gregory Williams is a Baltimore based labor and employment attorney and the significant other of a Baltimore City high school teacher. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.