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What happens before Boise schools call a 'snow day?' And who makes that call?

The Boise School District has teams of drivers who navigate the district's streets before making the final decision to call a snow day.
Boise School District
The Boise School District has teams of drivers who navigate the district's streets before making the final decision to call a snow day.

For the record, the Boise School District “will not cancel school on days with normal wintery conditions,” according to the district’s official policy.That said, they’re quick to add, “the Boise School District’s primary concern is for the safety of all students.”

“The decision to cancel is multifaceted,” said Nick Smith, area director of the district’s Boise High School Quadrant. “We're not only looking at the current conditions, but also what the National Weather Service is predicting for the rest of the day.”

Smith visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about how the district buffers its calendar in case of severely inclement weather, and how a very “old school” procedure leads to the pre-dawn decision to call a “snow day.”

“The Boise School District covers approximately 450 square miles. We certainly have some of our drivers who encounter more difficult road conditions than others.”
Nick Smith

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Well, depending on whether you're a parent or a teacher, a snowplow driver, and especially if you're a kid, the words “snow day” grab your full attention. And 2024 has already seen a few snow days, which has us wondering: who gets to make that call and what factors are involved? So here comes Nick Smith. He is with the Boise School District, and he is what is called an Area Director in the Boise High School Quadrant. Mr. Smith, good morning.

NICK SMITH: Good morning George. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

PRENTICE: I guess my first question is, and a lot of people ask me this, so I get to ask you: When do you have to wake up and start checking the weather?

SMITH: That's a great question. So, we get up pretty early when we are predicting poor weather. We get up around 345 in the morning and start driving in our designated areas. There's a team of six people, and we divide the district up into kind of six areas, and we start driving at 345. The goal is to be back to the district office by 5:00 in the morning, so that we can deliberate and make a decision by 515 in the morning, because the first bus pulls out of the bus barn at 5:20 a.m..

PRENTICE: I had no idea that it was such a physical process. So, you and your colleagues…you said six?

SMITH: So, we drive in shifts of six. So, there's 12 of us that drive, but we typically divide up into two groups of six so that if we have multiple bad weather days in a row, um, the same people aren't having to get up day after day after day. And that's kind of a newer practice this year. We used to all drive every day, but we're trying to share the load now by dividing up into two groups.

PRENTICE: Are you driving the equivalent of some bus routes?

SMITH: Yeah, we try to go to cover the entire district. So, for example, I live in southeast Boise, so I'm responsible for driving those neighborhoods. So, I drive up through Warm Springs Mesa, through Harris Ranch, up into Harris, north through Columbia Village in that area, and then finish my route out by the bus barn into the district office. So, that's kind of the route I take. We have a colleague of mine drives the north end, including the Highlands and Hidden Springs areas. We have folks that are driving the Bench…the Central Rim area and throughout the district.

PRENTICE: I've got 100 questions. What if you can't make it to the district office? What if the conditions are just…..you shouldn't be driving.

SMITH: Yeah, that's a great question. We stay in communication throughout our time driving. So we have an ongoing text thread that we kind of keep in touch of what we are witnessing and observing and experiencing when we're out there. And certainly, there have been times where some drivers have more of a challenge than others. As you can imagine, the weather kind of hits… the Boise School District covers approximately 450 square miles. And so, when you consider the weather that might be impacting the North End and the Highlands area might not be impacting the southern part of the district as much. And so, we certainly have some of our drivers who encounter more difficult road conditions than others.

PRENTICE: But more often than not, when you do get together… I'm guessing most of the time, if not all of the time….you make a decision for the district as a whole.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. And so, we meet back at the district office by 5:00 and deliberate, and have that conversation. And when we make a decision to cancel school, it's for the district as a whole. And so even if the weather wasn't quite as bad in, in the southeast, if it's really bad in the north and into the Highlands and those areas, we would make a decision to cancel school for the entire district.

PRENTICE: What happens then? There must be a text/phone/email chain.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. So, the decision to cancel is kind of multifaceted. So we are deliberating, but we also are in contact with Ada County Highway District. And we talk to them about what they were able to do overnight, what roads they were able to treat and how they were able to, um, prepare for the morning commute. And we also are in communication with the National Weather Service. So we take all that into consideration. And then once we do make that decision to cancel it for a snow day, we initiate an entire communication process… and it includes our communications department sending out notices to families through our emergency text messaging process that parents and staff members and anyone really can sign up for. Um, we start sending emails out to parents and staff. We contact our local news media to let them know of the closure, and then our communications department starts posting on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, next door neighbor, all of those different platforms. And then we initiate our internal phone trees. So I contact all of the principals in the Boise quad, let them know that school is canceled, ask them to initiate their phone trees so they send out their text messages to their staff as well. So it's once we make that decision, it's a it's fairly quick notification process.

PRENTICE: Are snow days built-in to a school calendar?

SMITH: That's a great question as well. The district doesn't actually build snow days into our calendar, so to speak. Long story short: state law requires school districts to adopt a school calendar that provides students at each grade level with a minimum number of instructional hours in a year. So, in the case of our district, the calendar that we adopt each year exceeds that minimum number. So, for example, if the minimum number is 990 instructional hours in a year, our calendar, it might be, uh, 1050 something along that. So, we have more instructional hours than are required by state law, which basically in essence gives us that cushion that we need, uh, if we do have to. Cancel school for snow days or for any other purpose. So, if we had facility failures or anything like that, or any other type of weather that caused us to have to close school, that same state law allows school districts to close their buildings for 11 hours due to emergency closures. So, in addition to building in that buffer, we also have the ability to close up to 11 hours for emergency closure situations.

PRENTICE: So might you ever have factors where the weather deteriorates when staff and kids are in school, and you might need to react to that.

SMITH: You just described what makes all of this so difficult. Yeah, yeah. When we're trying to determine whether or not we're going to cancel school,  we're not only looking at the current conditions, but also what the National Weather Service is predicting for the rest of the day that could impact that afternoon commute and that afternoon, those afternoon routes trying to get kids home. So, in essence, when we're making a decision to cancel school, we're making that decision for the entire day. And as a result, there may be scenarios in which we decide to cancel school based on a predicted weather pattern, that that doesn't materialize to the degree we were anticipating. Um, but with that said, if we did find ourselves in a situation like you just described, we do have procedures that we would follow for notifying parents of the early dismissal and then processes for how we would get those students home. Um, so we do have a process, but we certainly try to avoid that, knowing the challenges on families.

PRENTICE:. I'm certain you get more than a few questions or funny looks when people say, well, the weather wasn't that bad, but the the converse of that is if you don't make the right decision, it is a public safety issue.

SMITH: Absolutely. And our student safety is our No. 1 priority when we're looking at this and we're going out and driving in the morning, we're looking at a number of factors. We're looking at one. Are the roads safe for buses to traverse. But we're also looking at how are the nature of our sidewalks and how are the nature of streets that families are going to be driving. We have a lot of students who ride bikes and walk to school, and so: Are they able to safely get to school through any means that that they commute to and from school?

PRENTICE: Nick Smith is Area Director at the Boise High School Quadrant in the Boise School District. And he's the guy who helps make the decision that a lot of kids love some parents. I you know, they're probably right, right on the edge of loving or hating it, but it's, uh, but at the heart of all of it is public safety. And for that, we thank you every day and for this morning. Thanks for giving us some time.

SMITH: Absolutely. It's my pleasure.

Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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