When the National Weather Service predicted a rainy nor’easter for Monday, Jan. 23, three school districts in Hudson County closed, and several others remained open but canceled afternoon activities. It was a rare event. New Jersey schools sometimes close for snowstorms and the occasional hurricane – but for rain?
West New York, Union City, and Guttenberg's schools announced late on Sunday that they’d be closed on Monday, anticipating 60 m.p.h. winds and flooding. Neighboring districts like Hoboken and Weehawken canceled their after-school activities.
Considering the proximity the closed schools have to their counterparts, why the discrepancy? And how are these decisions made when bad weather is in the forecast?
“We felt, Union City, West New York, Guttenberg, with 40-mile-an-hour winds, wind gusts of possible 50 to 60 miles, most of our students are walkers—they walk to school,” said Union City Superintendant of Schools Silvia Abbato last week. “It was a nor’easter, so we decided to close the schools. The weather changed later, and even by the afternoon, the gusts were so heavy, there were some tree branches that went down.”
At the time schools were closed, meteorologists predicted rain early in the day. As it turned out, the rains came later, after 3 p.m., but the forecasts were changing frequently.
Abbato and other area superintendents said they often discuss closings among one another.
“We have some older buildings also, so we were concerned about that,” said Abbato, who reached out to Mayor Brian Stack and the Chief of Police before closing.
Part of the roof for the Jose Marti field, which serves the Jose Marti Freshman Academy in Union City, fell off during the storm, Abbato said. She noted parents happily supported her decision.
The town also has to bus students to its Woodrow Wilson School, which is actually located in Weehawken. Union City is currently leasing the building housing the school.
“We do bus a lot of students outside the district,” Abbato said. “Special needs children. And to be on the highway on those kinds of days is very dangerous.”
The Union City district also started school a few days earlier in the school year than neighboring districts to better prepare, Abbato said.
Weehawken, which shares a border with Union City, stayed open.
Dr. Robert Zywicki, Weehawken’s superintendent, said they evaluate the situation according to one principle.
“If we stay open, are students going to be safe to travel to and from school?” said Zywicki. “Will there be any unsafe situations once they get to school? Like power outages, things like that.”
Regarding the nor’easter, “I had conversations with the superintendents from North Bergen, Hoboken on Sunday, actually. As we watched the weather, what we started to see was that the rain, the bad part of the rain, was shifting to after school.”
“The call to close or stay open is a decision made by each superintendent based on each district's unique circumstances.” -- Dr. Robert Zywicki
He noted, “The National Weather Service and NOAH have really, up to the minute weather maps. And they were really precise. The bad rain started around 4 o’ clock, once the kids were home.”
The superintendents interviewed said that none of the parents complained about the decisions.
Ultimately, Zywicki said, “the call to close or stay open is a decision made by each superintendent based on each district's unique circumstances.”
North Bergen’s superintendent, George Solter Jr. said that the towns north of Jersey City and Hoboken – which stayed open -- have topography issues that factor into school closings. North Bergen, for instance, is one of the hilliest cities in the country. But with the rain storm, the district stayed open.
“I just didn't see the need to close because I didn't see rain in the forecast until after school,” said Solter. “I saw some high winds, but I didn't see that the parameters would be for us to close. So that was my decision on why I did that. I had conversations with other superintendents [on Sunday]. They felt the need for their district, it was appropriate to close.”
“Jersey City has some hills,” he began. “I understand that the Heights has some hills, too. But that's one of the things that we have tremendous difficulty with. They don't have the hills we have.”
He noted, “When I make a decision on whether we have school or not, I have conversations with the DPW to see if they can clean the streets.”
He added, “It's not just the students, but it's also the faculty. They come into work, they have to go home from work, and we don't have parking lots for each school, so the faculty have to park on the street. So now, if there's a major snowstorm, not a lot of places have space for the faculty to park.”
Offices for the school superintendents in West New York and Guttenberg did not return multiple phone calls.