Have Tri-State area schools gone soft on snow days?

CINCINNATI – Is it just the imagination of curmudgeons that schools close at the drop of a snowflake these days?

The debate rages among parents and educators.

Exhibit A for the curmudgeons: In the mid-1990s, University of Cincinnati administrators developed the inclement weather policy that President Ono has consulted to cancel classes four full days and three partial ones this school year, including Tuesday’s cancelation due solely to frigid temperatures.

What was the policy before that?

“We didn’t close,” said Greg Hand, UC’s longtime spokesman. True, classes were canceled during the 1977-78 blizzards, but that was by order of then Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, not school administrators.

Those blizzard cancelations were the only times UC canceled classes due to bad weather in its history, according to Hand.  Not even the 1937 Ohio River flood, which crippled vast swaths of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, caused cancelations. UC ham radio operators helped coordinate emergency efforts, he said.

The Ohio Department of Education doesn’t keep records on snow days by school or district, and a quick survey of Tri-State schools turned up few records dating back more than a couple of years with the notable exception of Cincinnati Public Schools.

Exactly 20 years ago, CPS closed 12 days, according to data provided by Janet Walsh, CPS spokeswoman. From fall 1991 through spring 1995, the district closed an average of 5¼ days.

More recently, there were no snow days or delays in 2011-12, and one delay and one closing in 2012-13, she said.

“I have no data on that supports or debunks the premise that CPS would not have closed for zero-degree weather 20 years ago, just the recorded weather-related closings,” Walsh said. “It's reasonable to infer, based on the data, that bad winters following relatively mild winters may have been a factor.”

Suburban and rural districts as well as Miami University resisted the notion that they were softer on closings than in previous years.

“I don’t believe that to be true. I think it’s just been a long time since we’ve had a winter like this,” Oak Hills Local Schools Superintendent Todd Yohey said. “If you’re using this winter to make that comparison, the only comparison would be ‘77 and ’78.”

Oak Hills averaged about three snow days a year for the previous 12 years, he said, before closing six times to date this school year, most recently on Tuesday.

Yohey grew up two hours north of Cincinnati and doesn’t think closings are more prevalent.

“I don’t think the bar has been lowered in comparison to my own experience. We consistently missed four to 10 days a year, not only in the winter but sometimes because of fog.”

Connie Pohlgeers, director of school improvement and public relations at Campbell County Schools, said any increase in closings is attributable to better data.

“We have more weather-related data at our fingertips. We’re able to really look over time at weather trends, able to have access to weather advisories,” she said. Campbell County has canceled classes eight days so far, two short of its 10 makeup days built into the calendar.

At NKU, which has canceled classes twice this school year, Ken Ramey, vice president for administration and finance, has been at the university for 36 years.

Would the school have closed for zero degree temperatures 30 years ago like it did this year?

“I would say it would have probably been doubtful,” he said. “It was extremely rare that NKU would close or delay many, many years ago."

Ramey couldn’t pinpoint what caused the shift, though he noted, “We have a lot more students that we have to be concerned with than 30 years ago.”

Asked if people are just a bit wimpier now than 30 years ago, he inquired whether any other school officials had answered yes. When told no, he chuckled and said, “I won’t be the first to go that route.”

Miami, which canceled morning and night classes Tuesday because of frigid temperatures, has not changed its policy recently, said Claire Wagner, a university spokeswoman.

"Miami will not cancel classes just because there is snow or because other schools in the area are doing so.  It is important that students dress for wintry conditions, including boots to help you get through snowy walkways," she said. "We consider the specific issues and needs of each campus in making decisions about classes."

Kerry Hill, Campbell County assistant superintendent, doesn’t think standards are different now than when his grown children were in school.

“My expectations had always been I just want my kids to be safe. Can they get to school safely and get home safely?  I think that’s still the expectation,” he said.

The biggest change may be in the urban core, where children once stewed at the breakfast table while radio DJs announced a laundry list of rural districts getting off for a few inches of snow.

“When we were little, everybody went to the school in their neighborhood. I think that’s one of the differences,” said Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

Many of those schools closed, and many students now travel longer distances to attend magnet schools within Cincinnati Public Schools.

“Now we also have more children of poverty,” Sellers said. "They don’t have parents with cars. They have to stand on the street corner in the dark.”

Sellers agreed that closings presented headaches for working parents, but: “ As a parent, I would just have to make arrangements. I felt like that was my responsibility. Now you have to have four or five backup plans.”

Many parents who responded to a WCPO Facebook question about parents keeping their kids home in cold weather were unsparing in their criticism of today’s closing standards.

“Bundle them up and send them to school,” wrote Becky Raines Tucker. “We are raising a generation of wimps. I have three kids in school, and I tell them daily that they wouldn't have survived my childhood…The bus drivers put chains on the tires and we plowed through. Why should it be different now?”

Kim Rack added, “I grew up in inner-city Cincinnati and walked over a mile to school. We loved it. Made me grow into an independent woman. Knowing and understanding that there are rules, deadlines and (I) had perfect attendance.”

Some, like Bob Henry, veered toward the apocalyptic: “I foresee a whole generation of 40-year-olds who still live with and are coddled by their mommies in the future. We are doomed.”

Others like Rena Miller countered the tough-it-out crowd: “I was not going to let my daughter walk in minus 17-degree weather. It is counted against her, but (I) don’t think it should have been. We don’t have bus service and she has to walk. Even bundled up, the wind would have ripped right to her core. I don’t have a car, or I would have taken her.”

Whatever the reason, schools are bumping up against or exceeding their maximum days off before having to extend their school years or canceling holidays.

In Ohio, schools are allowed five “calamity days,” and in Kentucky, some are pressed to meet the minimum 170-day requirement.

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