Family Matters

Storm Sandy Closed Schools, But Were Officials Too Eager to Cancel Class?

If it seems like schools are opting to declare weather-related closures much earlier than they used to, you're right. It's yet another consequence of the Internet age.

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Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images

Cristina Morales and her children, including 8-months old baby Angie, take shelter from approaching Hurricane Sandy at a Red Cross shelter at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Dela., Oct. 29, 2012.

If it seems like schools are opting to declare weather-related closures much earlier than they used to, you’re right. It’s yet another consequence of the Internet age.

As schools along Hurricane Sandy’s path announced they’d remain closed Tuesday, superintendents  try to make the smartest call they can, based on the must up-to-date weather information they can gather, in time for working parents to scramble to find alternate child care. School officials aren’t waiting until the morning like they used to in order to cancel classes; in Sandy’s case they’ve called off classes more than 24 hours ahead, well before the first rain drops fell. “Parents expect to know things quickly and in a timely fashion,” says Kitty Porterfield, spokesperson for the American Association of School Administrators. “They’re looking for signals that you are on top of the situation. If you wait until the last minute because you are trying to save the school day, they may interpret it as bad management.”

In other words, says Porterfield, “this isn’t your mother’s school system.” (In this case, of course, advance notice to allow for back-up child care may not be too relevant; with the New York City subway shut tight, tons of working parents were marooned at home with their stir-crazy kids.

(MORE: Landfall: Why New York City Could Get the Worst of Sandy’s Wrath)

In any weather-related situation, safety is the first priority. So superintendents check with weather services, consider local forecasts, confer with colleagues and city and county officials and in this case, look at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s (NOAA) website for guidance on what to do. Then they make the call that affects millions; New York City’s schools alone serve 1.1 million students.

“It’s a judgment call,” says Robert J. Reidy Jr., executive director of the N.Y. State Council of School Superintendents. “We have to err on the side of caution to keep children safe.”

In 32 years as a superintendent, Reidy says the system for deciding whether to keep schools open or shut them down in the face of bad weather has evolved. There’s a constant stream of updated weather-related information. And it’s also easier to get the word out. Gone are the days of waking up early and plastering an ear to the radio to find out if school’s cancelled. Now, robo-calls and emails mean that parents learn of a superintendent’s decision within minutes.

In hindsight, sometimes that decision turns out to be wrong. A snowstorm may not materialize, or a hurricane’s furious winds and flooding may turn out to be just a minor annoyance. “You have to have a thick skin about that,” says Reidy. “When you’re wrong, the solace I used to take was that I erred on the side of safety.” And when they are right, parents can be grateful for the advanced notice.