• To Close or Not to Close? The Many Factors that Go into an Inclement Weather Decision

    In meteorological terms, Portland’s first big weather event of 2024 has been the definition of a perfect storm. Frigid temperatures and high winds combined with snow and ice to bring down tree limbs, close roads, scramble traffic, freeze pipes, and knock out power for tens of thousands of residents.

    It’s been a metaphorical perfect storm for Portland Public Schools as well. Fallen trees cut power to multiple schools and others have suffered water damage from broken pipes. Lack of heat is also a problem, and impassable roads, paired with snowed-in and icy parking lots, have made it impossible for buses to run safely. Those same conditions have limited how the district’s facilities and operations teams can even assess the scope of the issues, let alone begin working on solutions. And icy sidewalks mean walkers have no safe route to school.

    The district’s School Closure Team meets regularly during inclement weather to take all of the above into careful consideration. By now, families are quite familiar with how the district communicates these decisions. What’s perhaps less known is how district leaders arrive at such decisions in the first place. 

    The “School Closure Team,” which includes members of the transportation, facilities, operations, risk management, security, nutrition services, and school performance departments, is, in some ways, a misnomer. District leaders do everything in their power to keep schools open, but whenever inclement weather is on the horizon – and that includes extreme heat and smoke from wildfires – the main priority is always safety.

    “Safety comes first,” said Assistant Superintendent Margaret Calvert. “Everything else is secondary. We work with the best information we have to make an informed decision that puts safety first and allows families the time they need to plan and, in the case of a closure, secure childcare.”

    Staff members likewise need as much advanced notice as possible. Custodians and transportation and nutrition service workers often clock in well before school begins at 8 a.m, and they need to be able to get to their worksites safely. 

    In the interest of safety and timing, PPS’s transportation leadership team begins its work days before inclement weather even arrives. They contract with a local meteorologist to get the most detailed and accurate forecast possible. Then they get out on the roads – in pairs and often starting at three in the morning – to assess conditions and gather information they’ll later use to make a recommendation to the full school closure team. 

    According to Brandon Coonrod, Assistant Director of Transportation Services, the two-person observational teams are looking for a number of things during those early morning rides. 

    “We’re gauging air temperature, ground temperature, what type of precipitation is falling, if any. We’re looking for downed trees, downed power lines, obstacles our buses couldn’t make it around safely, that kind of thing,” he said. “If there’s snow on the ground, we’re evaluating that, too, because the type of snow impacts traction and whether or not our buses can navigate their routes without chains.”

    These observations are recorded in a detailed form that the team then hands off to district leadership. 

    “Ultimately, it’s their call,” said Lisa Wheeler, Transportation Routing Manager. “And while oftentimes they’re heavily dependent on our recommendation, there might be other factors that go into a closure or late start decision that aren’t transportation related.” 

    Those factors include the state of school buildings, both individually and across the district. Obviously, in the case of this particular storm, power outages, lack of heat, and water damage rendered several buildings unusable for a time, and repairs were delayed by the poor state of the roads. Even when power and heat is restored, it can take hours before a school warms up enough to be safe.

    “It’s not just, ‘Can we get kids safely to and from school?’” said Jonny Lewis, the district’s Emergency Management Program Manager. “It’s also, ‘Can we maintain a warm and safe environment throughout the day?’ For instance, if you have frozen pipes and they start to thaw, you might see leaks and that can cause a cascade of problems.”

    The school closure team also has to consider the fact that weather conditions – ever-changing, notoriously hard to predict – can vary widely across the district. While the west hills might be getting snow, schools at the lower elevations might see rain or freezing rain. And not all students attend the school closest to their home. Many have to travel across the city for a particular program. 

    Instructional hours are another part of the equation. The state mandates that all students get between 900 and 990 hours, depending on grade level. PPS leadership always makes sure to craft a school calendar that ensures each student gets more than the required amount of instructional time, but late starts and school closures can obviously eat into that time. 

    Fortunately, the School Closure Team does not make inclement weather decisions alone or in a vacuum. The team partners with the National Weather Service, Portland Bureau of Transportation, city and county emergency management personnel, and neighboring school districts to share and compare data, and they often meet multiple times a day to discuss current weather, road, and school building conditions.

    It’s a complicated and intricate process that might sound more like art than science, but, “in the end,” said Lewis, “I think families can take comfort from the fact that we have a multi-disciplinary team studying and weighing all the facts in order to arrive at the best possible decision to keep our community safe.”