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Local Column

Olson: Decision to call a snow day not an easy one, leaders say

A snowplow heads through DeKalb on Wednesday. With extreme cold and snow forecast for next week, local superintendents will have to make decisions about whether schools will be open.
A snowplow heads through DeKalb on Wednesday. With extreme cold and snow forecast for next week, local superintendents will have to make decisions about whether schools will be open.

It’s a tough decision, one that affects thousands of people, and either choice is likely to lead to criticism: When should public schools close because of weather?

Leaders of public K-12 school districts have to make these choices, as do the presidents at community colleges like Kishwaukee College and universities like Northern Illinois University.

On Wednesday, with snow falling atop a sheet of ice formed by rain that had fallen earlier, most DeKalb County school districts announced school was cancelled. At NIU, President Lisa Freeman first delayed opening the DeKalb campus until noon, and later decided to keep it closed until 5 p.m., allowing evening classes to continue. President Laurie Borowicz decided Kishwaukee College would open at noon, but eventually settled on an all-day closure. She said tghe college likely will follow the lead of what local school districts decide in the future.

Borowicz told me that it wasn’t much of an off-day for her – the decision-making process on whether to open the campus or not started around 4 a.m. NIU uses several different matrices to determine whether or not to close, Freeman said. It sounded rather complicated, but then, NIU isn't quite like any other schools in the area.

With the forecast we’re looking at next week, school administrators are going to be faced with more tough choices about whether to have class or not.

District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman is in her seventh year as the top administrator of Sycamore’s public schools. She says she always tries to notify families of a school closing the night before if possible, but no later than 6 a.m. If you haven’t heard about a school closing by 5:30 a.m., you probably can expect classes will be in session.

The looming threat of severe weather and the choice of whether to cancel classes, she said, is “like a stomach ache.”

“If we can in a safe way provide opportunities for students to come to school so that parents can have a regular schedule at home, then we do that,” Countryman said. “Ultimately it is a parent’s decision, so when we have school open, if you as a parent decide your student’s not going to go to school today, you can make that decision. We just ask that parents call in.”

Area superintendents don’t make their decisions in a vacuum. They talk to each other during the decision-making process, Countryman said. That’s why so many DeKalb County schools all closed on Wednesday, while all of them were open on Friday, even though some parents chose to keep their children home with temps below zero in the morning. (The Olson girls had to go. Their dad is soooo mean.)

School leaders don’t act in lockstep, though. Some districts, such as DeKalb’s District 428, have early dismissal plans for students that they can activate. In Sycamore, once your child is at school, they’re pretty likely to remain there through the rest of the school day. And everyone decides what's best for them.

Superintendents had to make up their mind at least one day this week, and with snow in the forecast Monday and below-zero temps expected on Wednesday and Thursday, there will be more tough calls to make. Leaders will have to determine if buses can be counted on to run, whether rural roads be passable, and if the wind chill will pose a health hazard.

How many school days will students lose next week? Countryman said it’s hard to predict right now.

“We will continue to push out as much communication as we can,” she said. “Always be prepared to be ready to go to school or to have those alternate plans, but again, it’s kind of a game-day decision.”

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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