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Downers Grove

Deciding to close school 'a very thoughtful process,' school administrators say

A snow plow spreads salt down Main Street in Downers Grove.
A snow plow spreads salt down Main Street in Downers Grove.

DOWNERS GROVE – For most students, an unexpected school cancellation can be heaven sent, but there’s a lot of work that goes unseen before a final decision – let alone an announcement – is made to parents, staff and faculty.

From bus routes to building conditions, school officials take time to think through every issue, and because weather can be unpredictable, declaring a late start, leaving a schedule untouched or cancelling an entire day can also be made at the eleventh hour.

“It’s a very thoughtful process,” said Megan Hewitt, community relations coordinator at Downers Grove Grade School District 58. “Our superintendent ultimately makes the decision whether to cancel school or keep school in session, but that is definitely not a decision that she makes by herself.”

To put it simply, one of the most important steps in this process is communication. Hewitt shared that Superintendent Kari Cremascoli typically connects with other area superintendents, district administration and building and maintenance crews, and they all have one concern in mind.  

“Safety is our top priority,” Hewitt said. “After safety, our students’ education is our second highest priority, and we want to make sure that if we can provide them with a day of learning that we can do that.”

On Jan. 28, District 58 was one of many schools that issued a snow day. According to a press release issued by the district the morning of Jan. 28, the school deemed that the several inches of snow combined with freezing drizzle was "a significant concern and serious safety risk."

Hewitt pointed to the school’s official website, which breaks down what goes into a decision. A quick scroll through a checklist offers more insight: Do the buildings have power, light and heat? Is the parking lot plowed? Are the roads continually plowed, and is traffic moving?

“The streets, in general, are they plowed enough for buses to get in and around?” Hewitt said. “Speaking of buses, sometimes when the weather’s super, super cold in particular buses don’t start running, and we need to have running buses.”

District 58 also created an easy-to-read wind chill chart that shows parents, students and staff what temperature and wind speed could impact closure.

Snow days, as well as other weather-related school cancellations, essentially create a domino effect for people who have manage with the sudden, abrupt change to schedules. Hewitt said she understands that parents, especially those who work, have to figure out childcare when there is no school.

“We try to be mindful,” she added. “We try to make those calls as early as possible.”

In other school districts around the Chicagoland, a similar model is used. Lindsey Foster, of La Grange Elementary School District 102, and Tony Hamilton, of Lemont High School District 210, shared Hewitt’s sentiments. Both District 102 and Lemont High School District 210 stayed open earlier this week despite snowfall.

Like Hewitt, Hamilton, District 210’s director of school and community relations, said he and his colleagues often worry about their commuters. They have student drivers, others who walk or wait for the bus, and, of course, parents who drop off their teens

Administrators from La Grange District 102 and Lemont District 210 make their rounds of phone calls and loop in village staff to inquire about road safety and any other challenges that may occur.

“It’s just weighing whether that effect is great enough to prohibit travel to campus,” Hamilton said.

He explained further that when it comes to wind chill temperatures, District 210 does not have a “red line,” and again, “that’s something to take into account.”   

Schools do have emergency days built into their calendars, and those cancellations can be made up at the end of the school year. Even then, it's the momentum of students and teachers that comes to a halt, Hewitt and Hamilton said.

All these factors have to be accounted for before making a choice, and that decision can be a tough one. At the end of the day, school officials need to stay alert and keep a close eye on the weather.

“You’re not going to please everyone with your decision and checking that the most important thing is doing what’s best for kids,” Hewitt said.

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