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Not an easy decision

Snowflakes fall on students loading onto buses in January 2016 after school dismisses in Jamestown. School officials say there are a variety of factors to consider before deciding to close school because of weather. John M. Steiner / Sun file photo

There are many factors that go into a decision on severe weather school closings but the top priority is student safety, Jamestown school administrators said.

It's all about timing and sometimes the decision is as easy as looking out the window and other times it involves several sources of information and opinion, said Robert Lech, superintendent of Jamestown Public School District. The conversations are happening at 4 a.m. for a decision to communicate to staff and families by 6 a.m., he said.

"With weather, we are asked to make these decisions prior to the events and a general rule of thumb for those of us having to make the decisions is to try to err on the side of caution," Lech said. "It is better to make that kind of wrong call concerning safety than to put parents, kids and buses in dangerous positions."

The school district had cold weather-related closings on Jan. 29-30, said Sally Ost, school district business manager. There were also two-hour weather delays to open on Jan. 24, Jan. 28 and Feb. 4, she said.

There are two days built into the 175-day school calendar to use as severe weather cancellation days and they were used Jan. 29-30, she said. Closing schools for another weather day would require using a planned no-classes day to make it up or the district would need to add another day to the school calendar, she said.

"At this point we are fine," Ost said.

Weather-related school closings most often involve a combination of snow, ice, cold and wind, Lech said. There isn't a single weather standard.

"It's just to recognize when inclement weather is occurring and then to make the best choice with all of the given factors available at the time," Lech said.

The two January closings were solely about severe cold with temperatures reaching minus 33 degrees, he said. That is rare to have a single factor cause a closing, he said.

"That is very extreme and we don't see that a lot," Lech said.

At minus 30 degrees the decision is about the risk of life-threatening exposure of students walking outside, he said. There is also the potential for mechanical breakdown of a bus or private transportation that drives up to 30 minutes out of town, he said.

The National Weather Service is part of the decision process, Lech said. With storm tracking, the forecasts can be updated hourly and the experts can offer insight regarding hazards to transportation on a localized level, he said.

Adam Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said the school districts call when there are concerns with fast-changing conditions, potentials for precipitation, temperature or hazardous visibility.

"They will want to know the weather for the day and specifically for when the buses run in morning and afternoon," Jones said. "They will want to know how impactful the weather will be during these times and if it will change dramatically during the course of the day."

Bus transportation is always a big concern for rural areas that are impacted in different ways from the city routes, he said.

Residents in the district reporting cold, snowy or slippery conditions are part of the decision process, Lech said. The contracted bus company noting that diesel fuel can start to gel at such extreme temperatures, he said.

Brian Yanish, contract general manager with Dietrich & Sons Inc., a Valley City-based bus company contracted with Jamestown Public School District, said he and the Jamestown manager start a potential weather discussion the day before a possible closing. It's rare that the bus company will make its own decision but it provides information and recommendations to the school districts regarding travel conditions, he said.

"We are out there checking the routes and the areas that have been a problem historically and monitoring the weather," Yanish said. "We just try to be another voice to help the superintendent with the decision."

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