For as long as there has been school, there have been students’ two favorite words: “snow day.”
And with another large winter storm expected to dump a foot or more of snow on central Maine beginning Thursday afternoon, area superintendents are debating whether there will be a delay, a cancellation or a normal school day.
The process involves more than just checking an hourly forecast. Superintendents get input from everyone from plow drivers and neighboring school district superintendents to a former Maine TV weatherman who is the go-to guy for school administrators many in the area.
Dominic DePatsy, superintendent of Pittsfield-based School Administrative District 53, said making the decision to cancel school starts several days before a storm hits.
Aside from his transportation director, he usually calls nearby superintendents Greg Potter, of the Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, and Heather Perry, of Unity-based RSU 3.
“It’s good to see what other school districts are doing,” DePatsy said. “You don’t want to be the only one who didn’t call off school.”
The conversations with neighboring superintendents are useful because “they force us to look beyond ourselves,” said Patricia Hopkins, superintendent of Gardiner-based SAD 11.
“A lot of our staff travel back and forth and live in towns where maybe road conditions aren’t as up to par as other communities,” Hopkins said. She said that the district’s director of operations stays in contact with the National Weather Service office in Gray about notable forecasts.
The weather service predicts about 10 to 14 inches of snow in the Waterville and Augusta areas, starting early in the afternoon, with continuous snowfall until late Friday morning.
“It’s a classic coastal storm, or nor’easter, whatever you want to call it,” said Mike Kiftner, a meteorologist for the weather service.
Several districts also rely on hourly weather reports tailored to their corresponding towns from Russ Murley, operations manager for Precision Weather, a nationwide company based in Portland and Syracuse, N.Y., that provides weather reports customized to specific regions or towns.
“We help provide an extra layer of service,” Murley said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. He said about a dozen districts in the state use the service.
Murley was busy Wednesday keeping his clientele — which includes school districts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as railroad companies, ski resorts and highway departments — updated on the coming storm.
“I sent out an email this morning with general start times and snow amounts,” Murley said. He said he talks with each school district at a pre-determined time, when Murley talks with a superintendent personally.
“If we’re anticipating a storm, at about 4:20 a.m. Murley gives me a call and updates me on the weather,” DePatsy said. “It’s usually about a minute-long phone call.”
The reports Murley provides the superintendents are tailored specifically for the towns, which each have their specific potential problems, he said.
“Skowhegan, for example, has a lot of dirt roads, so that’s a different beast,” he said.
He’s been a meteorologist in Maine for about 25 years, including on WMTW-TV, Channel 8.
“We know the districts and what the roads will be like,” he said. “Our forecast is exactly for that district. We’ll tell you it will change from snow to rain in Pittsfield at 10:30 in the morning.”
Some districts solicit Murley’s advice about whether they should cancel school, while others just seek the detailed, tailored information.
THE PLOW KNOWS
At Skowhegan-based RSU 54, Superintendent Brent Colbry said in addition to working with Murley and checking the National Weather Service, Colbry gets in contact with area plow drivers to get updated road conditions.
“We usually start the communicating early in the morning, at about 4 a.m.,” Colbry said. “If it’s already snowing, we’ll make calls to the plow truck drivers and talk with the bus director. We put all the information together, and I make a call no later than 5:30 a.m.”
The decision to cancel school ultimately comes down to the superintendent, and RSU 11′s Hopkins admitted there’s no standard formula to follow.
“This is not a science,” she said. “Sometimes we make the right decisions; other times, in hindsight, you wish you made a different decision.”
Once a decision has been made, the superintendents start reaching out to the different contacts to let students, parents, guardians and staff members know about the delay or day off. Beyond calling local television and radio stations, most school districts use an automated message program that lets the people who signed up know about the cancellation quickly and conveniently.
“The most important part is we have a person on staff that runs the automated system that sends out hundreds of emails and texts and alerts in a period of 10 minutes,” said Jim Anastasio, superintendent of the Augusta School District. “We used to try and have the decision made by 5:30, but that’s too late, in my opinion.”
As for the latest snowstorm, it’s anticipated to start snowing at midday Thursday in central Maine, which is slightly different, according to Murley.
“Most storms start late at night or early in the morning. This one is different,” he said, adding that a broad area of the state eventually will be covered in up to 18 inches of snow.
“It’s going to be a sizable storm, but the information I’m trying to get across is it won’t get bad until after dark on Thursday,” Murley said. “School on Friday is the question mark.”