Some students were afforded a late start or the coveted snow day last week when a winter storm blew through the area.
Varying precipitation accumulations caused St. Ignatius to completely call off school for the day while to the north in Polson, students started classes two hours later than their normal starting time.
The decision, made by district superintendents, is guided by state-mandated guidelines from the Office of Public Instruction.
School days must occur within the fiscal year of July 1 through June 30. Minimum hours for age brackets must be completed, and the school year “must be conducted during each school fiscal year.”
To make the best decision superintendents can, they start to gather information from around the county early in the morning, St. Ignatius Superintendent Jason Sargent said.
“Superintendents are usually up and texting by 5 (in the morning) on those kinds of days, he said. “We all have to ultimately make our own decisions,” but it is advantageous to communicate early in the morning of storms because each district has families traveling around.
Charlo District Schools Superintendent Steve Love echoed that during weather events, district leaders are discussing what the conditions are in their respective areas.
Love shared that whether to cancel school or have a delayed start to the day is the third-toughest decision a superintendent can make.
“The only other harder decisions are (student) expulsion and recommendations for teacher termination,” Love said.
The primary concern is the safety of the students for all schools.
Love and Mark Johnston, superintendent of Ronan, both said that school is a safe place for many students who get food and warmth through the day.
“It’s a balancing act” to decide the best course of action on severe weather days, Love said.
A two-hour delay is what Weltz said the district aims for, if needed, because it gives time for city, county and state plow trucks to treat roadways. That later start also gives winter storms time to “lighten up.”
In St. Ignatius, Sargent explained that school is usually either in session or it is completely cancelled.
“It mainly boils down to buses; what’s it look like on the back roads,” he said.
A former science and biology teacher, Weltz said that he keeps weather in his mind constantly.
“I’ve always got my eyes on the weather. (Last Thursday) it was 51 degrees at 3:45 (p.m.). By 6 it was 20,” Weltz said.
Weltz said on the days where the weather is a little more dicey, his day, along with his transportation and maintenance supervisors, begins at 3 a.m.
The transportation director, Weltz said, drives bus routes to see how driving conditions are, especially in the rural areas.
Back roads, like Minesinger Trail, see drifts that make it difficult to maneuver a vehicle, Weltz said.
Rural roadways are a concern in St. Ignatius, as well. The district contracts a busing system, and Sargent said he talks with the business to see if roadways are driveable.
Sargent also said that his team looks at conditions around school buildings.
“Is the parking lot ready? Are the walkways safe? Are you able to get it cleared up by the time school starts so everything’s safe?” he said.
In the case of last Friday, Sargent explained that the snow was too heavy for the use of a four-wheeler or truck, and any walkways or parking lots would have needed to be moved by hand.
In Charlo, Love said that he and his team decide if canceling or delaying school would add a hindrance to school concerts that could be scheduled or any athletic events or other activities.
If the weather is questionable, Weltz said he’ll call the Montana Department of Transportation as well as the county’s dispatch center to help gauge what the driving conditions around the county are like.
Ultimately, Johnston said that if a parent feels it is best to keep their child home during a particularly harsh storm system, it is their prerogative. “They (parents) have that right.”
Overall, superintendents around the county work together as well as with their staff to make the decision to cancel classes or keep schools open.
“We’ve got it down to a science now,” Weltz said.