Home>Inclement Weather Decision Making Process Outlined
Fairfax County Public Schools is aware of the implications of opening school during less than perfect conditions and of delaying or closing schools when poor weather conditions exist or are predicted. The school system understands that its students are better served--both academically and socially—by being in school. On the other hand, the school system knows that it operates within an area whose transportation system has difficulty operating efficiently even when the weather is perfect. Fairfax County’s transportation system includes high speed, high volume roadways such as Route 66, Route 495, Route 95, the Fairfax County Parkway, and others. The county’s transportation system also includes narrow, winding roads in still relatively rural parts of the county such as Clifton and Great Falls.
Because Fairfax County encompasses approximately 400 square miles, the weather can vary significantly—as can road conditions--in different parts of the county. While the western and northern parts of the county usually have colder temperatures--and thus the worst conditions--sometimes the reverse is true. Often the major roadways are in good driving condition, but neighborhood roads remain treacherous.
FCPS students and staff members typically travel to school in five ways. Some are driven on school buses, some walk to schools or bus stops, some are driven by their parents, some drive themselves, and some are driven by other students. When the school system considers the impact of weather conditions on the ability to open schools, it considers all these methods of transportation. In fact, because school bus transportation is by far the safest form of transportation, decisions to delay or close schools are rarely made because of concern over school bus transportation. FCPS thinks about teenagers who drive to high schools in the early morning hours before it is light. It thinks about students who walk and about students waiting at bus stops. The school system thinks about the many students who attend schools, centers, or programs that are long distances from their homes. FCPS recognizes that thousands of its students do not go to their base schools in order to have access to the programs or services that best meet their needs.
Because some FCPS schools open as early as 7:20 a.m., and because many students drive or are driven long distances to their schools, FCPS school buses begin their runs before 6 a.m. By 6 a.m., FCPS students are on buses, at bus stops waiting for buses, or still at home after their parents have left for work. Experience tells school officials that the absolute worst thing the school system can do is to unexpectedly return students home without parents knowing that this is happening. Occasionally weather conditions worsen quickly thus requiring a later decision. Parents need to be aware of this possibility and plan accordingly. The safety of our students, staff, and parents remains our primary consideration.
Many staff members, such as bus drivers, leave home well before 5 a.m. Many parents need time to make last-minute arrangements for child care. Accordingly, the school system makes every effort to make decisions to delay opening or to not open schools by 4:30 a.m. Once a decision is made by the Superintendent, it takes approximately 30 minutes to complete notifying local media, updating the school system web page, the school system television channel, sending Keep in Touch e-mail and SMS messages, and posting to Facebook and Twitter.
If the school system is lucky, weather events occur in ways and times that make it easy to decide to open, delay, or close. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is amazing how often snow, sleet, or freezing rain doesn’t start until between 5 and 8 a.m. Often, the school system has to base its decisions on weather forecasts. This sometimes results in schools opening when the conditions are worse than anticipated and in schools closing on days when the weather ends up being not all that bad. On some days, Fairfax County residents experience perfect conditions in some areas of the county and very dangerous conditions in other parts of the county. On some occasions, the school system has been able to make a scheduling decision the day before so that parents, staff members, and students know what will happen the following day. This usually happens when precipitation is already on the ground and the temperatures are such that the precipitation on the ground is frozen or will refreeze.
FCPS prefers to avoid making decisions based on forecasts. When weather events are actually occurring, or have occurred, the school system gathers information from many sources. FCPS administrators participate in regional conference calls that include representatives from the National Weather Service, the Virginia Department of Transportation, mass transit, police departments, federal and local agencies, and school systems. Everyone shares information during these calls. The school system consults with the Fairfax County Police Department to get road condition information from different parts of the county. FCPS security staff members report what they are experiencing as they check schools and parking lots. School bus transportation staff members drive into neighborhoods and around schools to obtain firsthand information on current conditions. Administrators talk to FCPS maintenance and custodial staff members who are responsible for clearing and treating school parking lots and sidewalks. Finally, school officials consult with other school systems in the region to share information.
Once all this information is gained, the Superintendent is called and briefed. She makes the final decision.
On some occasions, the school system has been able to make a scheduling decision the day before so that parents, staff members, and students know what will happen the following day.
Those administrators who help make the decisions know that often no perfect decision exists. What many parents, staff members, and students think about FCPS opening and closing decisions often is influenced by where they live, how they commute, what their child care situation is, and many other factors.
The school system hopes that this explanation helps everyone understand the process and the steps administrators take to help the Superintendent make the best possible decisions. When everything is said and done, however, each parent should be prepared to make the best decision for his or her own child. If schools are open, but a parent does not believe it is safe for his or her child, the parent should keep the child at home.
January 23, 2014