Canceling school often a tough call for officials

Friday February 8, 2013

NORTH ADAMS -- By 6 o’clock this morning, anxious students and parents, school teachers and staff will know if Superintendent James Montepare has canceled classes or called for a half-day at North Adams Public Schools.

The Berkshires are on alert today for a major winter storm, but Montepare on Thursday afternoon hadn’t made an early decision on whether the 1,600 students, along with teachers and staff, will report -- or for how long, possibly -- to school today.

It can be a tough call for those in charge of calling off school, delaying its start or closing early. Across Berkshire County, many other superintendents, or other appointed district officials, will be making the call this morning. The storm is supposed to kick into higher gear as the day goes on.

"It’s not an easy decision to make because of the difficult chore of figuring out the weather in the northern Berkshires," said Montepare.

Montepare said he makes the decision with the input from the city highway superintendent and district director of facilities, along with the latest weather forecast.

Some school systems, including Pittsfield, Lenox and Lee public schools and Farmington River Regional School District, already made decisions on Thursday for half-days today. The state Department of Education counts half-days toward the 180-day school year requirement.

On Thursday, Montepare said he expected his day to start at 4:30 a.m. today. His decision should be made no later than 6 a.m., he said.

With students commuting from as far as Florida, Savoy, and Monroe, Montepare said these children need to be provided advance warning. Cafeteria workers will need to be notified not to make breakfast. Similar to a meteorologist, he’ll have to forecast a broad range of factors including snow density, wind chill, road conditions and other factors to determine whether classes should proceed.

There could be an armada of 31 school buses and vehicles on the road at any one time, he said, and safety is the priority.

Located in a valley, the weather in North Adams can be unpredictable, he said.

"In a short distance, the weather is very different," Montepare said.

Further south, there could be as much as two feet of snowfall in Otis and Becket, according to forecasters. Superintendent Jo Ann Austin, of Farmington River Regional School District, said she has 40 years of experience making the decision. The district serves students in Otis and Sandisfield.

Farmington River, working with Berkshire Hills Regional School District and Lee Public Schools, agreed to have a half-day Thursday morning, she said. Class will end at 11:45 a.m. Officials say there will be no preschool classes.

"The prediction tells us that a large storm is coming and it’s fast-moving and the accumulation is going to be pretty bad," said Austin.

The decision involves consultation from the highway department heads at Otis and Sandisfield, superintendents from Lee Public Schools and Berkshire Hills, she said.

Immediately after a decision is made, Austin said there’s coordination with news media outlets to inform the public.

"It’s a finely tuned symphony," said Austin, who said the snow-day decision was designated to the district business manager.

Principal Joelle Brookner, of Williamstown Elementary School, said the students at her school will be doing their part to ensure the snow falls. They are probably hoping for a day off. Teachers, especially later in the school year, are not fans of snow days, but Brookner said the students love them.


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