With four snow-related school closings in the last two weeks, Hoboken’s public school students have missed a lot of class.
Parents are hoping they won’t miss any more, but the decision is usually a complicated one, since superintendents don’t know exactly when a storm will hit or how dangerous the roads may be.
So how does Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback make a decision to close schools, have a delayed opening, or shut school early?
Toback said on Wednesday that, as steward of the city’s nearly 2,000 students, deciding whether to close the city’s schools is one of his hardest jobs.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said. “It’s not like the Board of Education has its own weather service, so we consult with a variety of different ones to try and get the best idea of what type of weather it’s going to be, and then a decision is made.”
Besides consulting forecasts, he talks to the city’s director of facilities, in the environmental services department.
Toback said that the final call is usually made no later than 5:30 a.m. on any given snow day, and if the procedures in place are executed without delay, the entire community is notified of the closure by 6 a.m. Sometimes, the decision is made the night before.
“It’s not an easy decision.” – Superintendent Mark Toback
“We have a central office snow chain where everyone has a different job,” he said. “Some of us are in charge of calling important people in the district, like the union and board presidents. Some are in charge of calling the media; someone is in charge of updating the website, someone calls providers and the various charter schools.”
Closing Hoboken’s schools isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it might seem. One particular challenge arises from the fact that the district’s afterschool programs aren’t technically run by the district; they’re managed by outside providers who hire their own employees. On some days, like a particularly chilly day two weeks ago, the district held a normal school day, but the afterschool programs were cancelled with only a few hours’ notice, forcing working parents to find backup care in a hurry.
Toback said he understood the problems a closing could pose for families.
“They have staffing issues in storms,” he said. “I get that it makes things difficult, but a lot of these people also have kids of their own.”
Sometimes, but rarely, challenges arise when the district attempts to make sure that everyone knows the school day is cancelled. One time, Toback said, the phone system gave way and families weren’t notified until 7 a.m. – just over an hour before the first bell.
Some parents have expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the district’s handling of snow days in an online forum, the Hoboken moms newsgroup. One parent said the lack of continuity in education was confusing for children, and that it’s hard to find child care for a special needs student.
Toback said he understood their frustration. He noted that parents tend to become even more frustrated when the forecasts turn out to be wrong.
“We look at every situation differently, and sometimes it’s a tough job to make a call like that,” he said, “especially when the weather doesn’t happen the way the forecast says it will,” he said.
The biggest and most stubborn issue with snow days is when to make up the days lost. For instance, Thursday was originally scheduled as a half-day and schools were going to be closed on Friday for professional development, according to the district calendar. In order to make up snow days, the district had decided to have Thursday be a full day and Friday be a half-day, in order to gain some time lost from previous snow days. But with the impending storm, that plan is cast in doubt.
Wednesday afternoon, Toback was unsure whether schools would be closed the next day – even though the forecast was grim.
“Right now it’s sunny and cold, so we’re not sure what will happen,” he said.
When to make up the days?
This past week, the district intended to have a half-day on Friday instead of the already scheduled in-service day, in order to allow students to make up one of the snow days. But instead, the district canceled the day altogether because of the overnight storm.
Now, there are even more days to make up.
In an effort to make up time lost, the district will consider lengthening the school year, shortening Spring Break, or even holding classes on Saturdays, Toback said. Nothing is definite, he said, and before decisions are made, both the Board of Education and the teacher’s union will weigh in on the issue.
School officials in neighboring towns said that sometimes, whether other towns close affects their decision.
“We talk to each other, all the superintendents,” said North Bergen Interim Superintendent of Schools George Solter. “We’re always making phone calls. It’s not something that you take lightly. We try and make sure that we stay consistent between Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York, and Union City.”
Stanley Sanger, superintendent in Union City, said, “That decision comes from the superintendent of schools in conjunction with public safety. The overall concern is the safety of children.”
He added, “You look for the most accurate information by watching television, working with the public works department, checking to see if they’re plowing. Sometimes you get news from the airport.” In addition, Accuweather provides updated alerts via e-mail.
Solter said, “As a group we have a lot of people that get together: The business administrator, the board secretary, the director of elementary and secondary education. We’ll talk together and review the information we’ve collected and make an informed decision.”
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