As a blast of Arctic weather swept across the country, Waterbury schools superintendent Verna Ruffin consulted forecasts and transportation officials before making the call: Schools in the hilly Connecticut city would delay opening by two hours Thursday. Within hours, social media was ablaze with criticism.
Some parents said schools should be closed entirely due to temperatures near zero degrees. With little snow on the ground, others questioned why schools should be affected at all.
The extreme weather that shuttered schools across a swath of the northern United States this week spurred similar debates over when such calls are appropriate, and whether school districts today might be getting “soft,” as suggested by Kentucky’s governor.
The debates also provoked conversations about the disruptions of school closures or delays on working families and poor students.
In making her decision to delay the start of school in Waterbury, Ruffin said she was worried about children walking to school on icy streets without sidewalks — and especially children who would be counting on eating breakfast and lunch at the school cafeterias. In Waterbury, three-quarters of the students are in families below the income threshold to qualify for free or reduced price meals.
“I am concerned about what happens if a child might be at home and there is no food,” she said. “That warm building for them might be the school.”
Superintendents in hundreds of districts had to wrestle with similar decisions during this week’s punishing cold snap. In Midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, it was a simple call given the temperatures that plunged to around 30 below zero, with wind chills much worse. It was a tougher decision on the East Coast, where it was cold and potentially dangerous, but not quite life-threatening.
Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said he was being slightly facetious when he told a radio station that closing schools for cold weather “sends messages to our young people that if life is hard you can curl up in the fetal position somewhere.”
In the debate touched off by his comments, many have pointed to the class divide between working parents that are inconvenienced by delays and poorer families that might not have a car to bring their children to school.
In a Facebook post that was shared more than 28,000 times in the span of a day, Courtney Schnitzler, who lives outside Louisville, Kentucky, called for cooler heads. “School is cancelled because not all kids have parents like you,” she wrote. “Not all kids get a ride to school, some walk the entire way. Not all kids get to sit in the warm car while they wait on the bus to come to the stop.”
Schnitzler said she doesn’t have children herself, but wanted to help other people sympathize with those around them.
In Waterbury, where the announcement of Thursday’s delay attracted over 280 comments on Facebook, Ruffin said she made the call the night before in hopes of alleviating the stress of parents who might need to make accommodations for child care. But she said she had to make the best decision for the entire community.
“Nobody should call anybody soft unless you’ve walked in those shoes,” she said. “I think you have to be sensitive and aware of the community you serve.”
Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said it was an easy decision to close schools Wednesday and Thursday, when forecasters were predicting heavy snow and wind chills of 30 degrees below zero.
But it did weigh on his mind that it’s near the end of the month and he knows families on public assistance are stretched thinner than usual.
“In this case it was really a no-brainer. But I’m weighing the time of the month, I’m weighing the lack of food that kids will have if they count on us. Some of our kids use our nursing services to monitor their medicines and their inhalers and things like that,” he said.
He said when it’s a close call he opts to close schools and make up the day another time.
“There’s no heroism in keeping the school open just to say you’re tougher,” he said. “The only contemplation is, do those kids need the food and warmth of the building?”
Raenette Riddick, whose daughter attends Catholic Academy of Waterbury, Connecticut, said she understands the struggles of those who have to scramble to find child care or whose children have to walk to school. But, she adds, it’s unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of school officials.
“We tend to view things from a very one-sided angle without appreciating everything that school officials are looking at from a balcony view,” she said. “And we’re looking at it from the floor.”