Anatomy of a snow day

Jason Ferguson
As the calendar marches into autumn and soon enough — winter — the snow will fall. When it does, Mark Naugle will have his eyes on it. And the forecast. And the TV. He’ll use his ears to listen to what others are saying, as well.
While it may not be in the official job description, one of the duties “as assigned” that comes with being the Custer School District superintendent is that of amateur meteorologist. That’s because, in his position, it is Naugle’s decision whether or not to declare a snow day.
It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly, and one that can be a no-win situation. The Custer School District is a large one, with enough various weather patterns to keep a trained meteorologist on their toes, let alone a school superintendent trying to do what’s best for the safety of the students who climb into cars or aboard busses to make the trek to school.
“It’s a decision I’ve made for 10 or 12 years,” Naugle said. “You just go with it. Sometimes it’s wrong; sometimes it’s right.”
Naugle said it’s imperative he make the decision about calling off school by 5 a.m. on a school day because there are bus drivers who are heading out to start their routes by then. Naugle said he consults with the S.D. Dept. of Transportation to find out road conditions, while also discussing the forecast with DOT officials.
It’s an inexact science, as sometimes the worst part of the storm is when the busses are traveling either to or from school and the storm tapers off afterwards.
“Sometimes we don’t do anything and it gets worse during the day and we’re sending them home at its worst,” Naugle said. “I want to do what’s best for the safety of our kids. It’s never easy.”
The size of the school district and its various weather patterns are complicating factors, as there have been times it’s blizzarding in Custer and sunny in Hermosa, or vice-versa. The weather on both sides of the district must be taken into account. There are provisions set forth that if conditions are poor in Hermosa but OK in Custer, the Hermosa students who travel to Custer can be excused from school. Some of the students travel many miles from rural destinations and can’t make it to school when it would seemingly be easy to do so.
“It’s hard, especially not being [in Hermosa],” Naugle said. “I make a lot of phone calls and try to know what’s going on.”
Sometimes, if a forecast is particularly dire, school will be cancelled a day prior. Naturally, that has backfired on Naugle in the past, but he said cancelling school before it even starts snowing is all a part of trying to make things easier on parents.
“That’s when you really start banking on the forecast,” he said. “There will be times I get it wrong, or the forecast will be wrong, and it will snow way more or won’t snow enough.”
On occasions where it snows a lot overnight, but clears up the next morning, school can be started late, typically two hours. This allows parents and children to get dug out and safely on the road to school. Other times, the snow starts to dramatically pick up during the school day and school will be let out early. It is that situation that causes Naugle the most worry because he can’t be positive all the children will have someone at home when they arrive.
Because of that, he said, he will call off school early only if the forecast calls for the snow to be particularly vicious when the after- school bussing occurs, around 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Hermosa route is the most concerning route, as it is the longest route and has the most children on the bus at any given time.
Last winter, the school district made up three snow days. There is one makeup day for snow days built into the school district calendar for each month November through April as needed. Two snow days, one in April and one on the second to last day of school, May 22, were never made up last year. By state statute, there is a minimum number of hours students have to be in school per year, but the school district makes up school days as a matter of practice, except for in extreme cases such as last year when snow days came so late in the year.
Parents who want to be kept in the loop on snow days can sign up for school messenger, which will send out messages — and sends messages about other issues, as well — to parents who use the service. Parents can sign up for the service by contacting the administrative staff at the respective schools.
Naugle adds that while he will always err on the side of caution to make sure students are safe coming to or going home from school, the decision of whether or not a child comes to school on a snow day (if school isn’t cancelled) rests with the parents.
“They can always make the decision to not send the students because of the weather,” he said. “If they are not comfortable putting kids on the road, we certainly support that. They need to make the best decision for their child.”


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