Too Cool for School?

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I vividly remember standing at the school bus stop in my school uniform: an itchy wool jumper, thin nylon knee high socks, stiff saddle shoes, topped off with a flimsy winter jacket. (They didn’t make jackets with 600-fill down like they do today.) The bitter wind stung my cheeks and legs; by the time I sat down on the bus, they had turned a purplish hue. But I don’t recall not going to school because it was too cold. It was, after all, winter.

But times have changed. This past Tuesday, about 6 inches of light powdery snow fell in the Baltimore area. That, coupled with single digit temperatures, closed schools in much of Central Maryland for two days, making for a really long weekend for anyone with school-aged children. Not to mention, schools had just closed a few weeks earlier due to chilly temperatures. From the dramatic news reports, you’d think families spent those days off huddled around their ovens to keep warm.

What really happened, at least from what I observed, was a far different scenario.

My son spent Wednesday morning across town, shoveling out his aging grandparents’ driveway and sidewalk (driven there, with little fanfare, by his father). Back at home, my 13-year-old daughter, who does a lot of couch surfing these days, surprised me by dressing herself and our puppy in layers and frolicking in the snow for over an hour. None of them looked any worse for the wear when they returned home.

I kept a dentist appointment for my two kids that afternoon. I figured we’d have the place to ourselves. When we arrived, the waiting room was packed. Kids and their parents sat around in bulky snow boots, their parkas thrown over the backs of chairs in the waiting room.

On the way home, close to dinnertime, I glimpsed droves of kids pulling their sleds up a snowy hill on the side of the road. It’s the hill that fronts the Baltimore County Board of Education building. Surely, administrators—if any showed up for work that day—could have seen that scores of children were able to brave the cold for some fun in the snow, even as the sun began to dip below the horizon, causing cold temperatures to drop further. Incidentally, many of these sledders were driven to the hill by their parents, who obviously were able to maneuver through the streets to deposit their kids at the sledding site. The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Is my memory addled, I wondered, or have we gotten softer about when we send kids to school? And is it just here in Baltimore, or nationwide? I decided to dig around a little to find out.

I came across a recent article in in which a school administrator acknowledged what my hunch had been all along: It’s not just here in Baltimore that educational decision makers have gotten more conservative about sending kids to school in inclement weather.

“The community’s expectations have changed,” said Dr. Dennis Fisher, deputy superintendent a school district in Kansas City, Missouri. “The community is less tolerant of having school during a winter event.”  Notice how he doesn’t take the blame for the decision (or credit, depending on how you look at it).

But another education professional, quoted in the same article, took quite a different stance. “We rarely close school; we’ve only closed school once in four years,” said Dr. Gary Prest, superintendent of the Bloomington, Minnesota’s Public Schools. And, get this: The day Prest was interviewed for the article, school was open in his district—despite a temperature (with wind chill) of minus 34 degrees. Brrrrr.

That does seem a little extreme. Or does it? Depends on whom you ask. So, what do you think? When is it too cold for kids to go to school?


Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.

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  1. I don’t ever remember missing school for cold, and only a handful of times for snow. I didn’t ride public transportation, however, and considering the problem BMore’s kids have with buses passing them by, and some buildings without proper heating/cooling…I am a little more sensitive to the weather issue. A final point that made me quit my ranting about the schools closing too often: A couple of years ago, the schools opened 2 hrs late. The newscaster pointed out that the buses would have a hard time with the roads. I did my “when I was a kid, we skied to school…or skated…whatever it took!” When I got a few miles down the road, the scene grew dismal, and I was caught on a slight incline with trucks, school buses, city buses and cars. All were slipping and sliding across 4 lanes. It took over 30 minutes to get over that perilous overpass, and I had a new respect for transporting school kids all over BMore during a little snow/ice.

  2. I would have to agree with the above comment. It is fine to say kids can make it to and from school, but Baltimore does not shovel out all the side streets (where many schools are located), private driveways and sidewalks (it is not the city’s responsibility). And what about Baltimore city kids–many of whom do not have the luxury (yes, it is a luxury to some) to own snow boots, and a heavy parka? They have to trek through icy streets (some with no sidewalks at all), dodging cars and buses to go to a poorly heated building?
    Sorry, don’t agree with you on this. When all of our school buildings are properly heated, all of our sidewalks and streets are properly shoveled and all of the buses start running on time, then maybe…

    • Cynically, I wonder how much of a role legal liability plays in these decisions to close school nowadays, when school would have definitely remained open in similar conditions years ago.

  3. I had those purple legs too waiting for the bus! I am terrified of driving in ice and snow so if schools are open I take it to mean that very cautious people have decided it’s ok for me to drive.

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