For several days each school year, the first question a superintendent must ask is, “Will we have school today?”

With snow, ice, freezing rain and fog all figuring in to Iowa's weather this past month, Vinton-Shellsburg Superintendent Mary Jo Hainstock has begun several school days – and ended many evenings – asking those questions.

She also has to help determine whether to dismiss classes early and/or call off or reschedule evening activities.

Today (Friday, Dec. 20), the superintendent and her team ended up both delaying and dismissing classes early on the final day of school before the Christmas vacation.

We asked Mary Jo to explain the process she and other school leaders use in making these decisions.

“Keith McGowan of the transportation department and I have most of the conversation,” said the superintendent. “He drives the roads (I go with him on occasion), we both look at the radar and forecasts, we talk to other superintendents or personnel from other districts.”

Les Bearbower, the V-S maintenance director, often is involved as he knows the conditions around the buildings and whether or not the snow can be removed by the time school would start. If administrators are considering canceling evening events, Activities Director Jim Struve is actively involved in the conversation.

There are no numeric guidelines for deciding whether to cancel or delay classes; no set number of inches of snow or density of fog.

“The main guideline is safety,” explains the superintendent. “Do we think we can get the busses in safely? Do we think we can get the kids home safely? What’s the weather going to be? What are other schools doing?”

The conversations between Keith and Mary Jo usually begin between 4:30 and 5 a.m.

“Often we talk then and then again at 5:30 or so to see if conditions have changed.,” said the superintendent. “We try very hard to have people notified by 5:30 and no later than 6.”

Struve handles the bulk of the rescheduling for V-S activities, working to find open dates with the other school(s) involved. He also works to find officials, etc.

“It can be a very complicated process to reschedule those activities,” says the superintendent.

As far as rescheduling the days of schools missed, some schools build snow days into the calendar (Vinton-Shellsburg does this) while other schools automatically put each of the make-up days at the end of the originally-scheduled year.

“It has worked fairly well for us to have them built in,” says the superintendent.

Despite all of the best efforts of everyone involved, it's almost impossible to make everyone in the district happy, regardless of the decision.

“What I’ve found is that it is difficult to make everyone agree with the decisions we make all of the time,” says the superintendent. “When it there is bad weather, there is a lot of frustration in general. We make our decisions on what has happened and what we think is going to happen. That means we are trying to predict into the future – which is always hard but almost impossible when it comes to weather! There are some days that are easy to call because the weather is SO bad that no one should be out; the more challenging ones are the days where the conditions may either get much better or much worse and it is hard to predict.”

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