Wichita defends snow day decision

Thursday turned into a sunny day with temperatures breaking 20 and some major melting going on.

While students in neighboring districts went back to class, the Wichita public school district called off school for the third day in a row, mainly because of concern that young children might wait in ultra-frigid early-morning temperatures for buses that could run late on snowy roads.

It was a decision that had some Wichitans questioning the durability of children in this day and age and just who is responsible for them.

When school district officials met Wednesday night to make the decision about canceling school, the temperature was forecast to be below zero Thursday morning with wind chills of 15 to 20 degrees below zero, said district spokesman Susan Arensman. (The temperature did hit a bitter minus 6.) In addition, "we had staff who had driven around many roads and still saw cars stuck. Side streets were not very driveable."

Because buses could be slowed by the road conditions, Arensman said, there was a chance that students would have to wait as much as half an hour in snow drifts on unplowed sidewalks. The district's school buses each pick up three routes of students at staggered times, so the children at the end of a bus driver's run — elementary-school students — would suffer the most from any delays.

About 20,000 of the district's 50,000 students ride the bus.

Although parents are responsible for children before they board a bus, "some parents might not be able to" wait until a bus showed up, Arensman said. "Some might already be at work."

Asked how that is different from parents needing to be at work when school is called off, she said it is up to parents to arrange child care.

She said on occasions when the weather turns bad unexpectedly, parents are alerted through the media that buses may be running late and that they are expected to take precautions to keep kids safe.

To the suggestion that the district could have followed a similar strategy Thursday, giving parents the option of an excused absence if they thought their children could not make it to school safely, Arensman said that could result in some parents keeping their kids home anytime it snowed, without calling in to the school about the absence.

Another consideration was that some children don't have warm enough clothing, Arensman said. "Some of our kids can't afford it," and the district has coat and mitten drives to help, she said.

Parent Gretchen DiGiovanni said she was a big fan of USD 259 but thought the cancellation decision Thursday was made for the exception and not the rule, when most students probably could have made it to school. She said calling off school for a third day in a row Thursday put her and her husband in "an impossible situation." She had been able to work at home for two days but had to be out of town for work Thursday. That meant her husband had to take their 9-year-old triplets to work with him — at the east-side Old Chicago.

"I wonder how many kids were left at home that maybe shouldn't have been," DiGiovanni said.

"I'm not sure it's the (school) system's fault or society's fault. I know the temperatures were cold, and we needed to prepare for that. It just seems we just used to get up and go. My theory is there are plenty of parents out there whose kids come to school without coats and hats... and the system has to take care of those kids because they know that the parents aren't going to."

Amber Pugh is one parent who said she didn't mind the cancellation Thursday.

"I know several families that have kids that have to wait for the bus, and they're pretty little _ one of them is in kindergarten and is 5, and I don't know if it's a good idea to have a kid standing there at 7:30 in the morning when it's negative 17 degrees outside," Pugh said. She said parents usually have their children take the bus for a reason, and it's usually because the parents have to be at work.

She added that she wasn't sure she liked the idea of high-school kids driving on unplowed side streets, and of some going out in a thick hoodie instead of a proper coat.

Pugh said she had heard a few parents complain that, "because over the last several weeks there have been lots of other things, in-service and holidays, maybe their kid will get behind."

Wichita Catholic schools were in session Thursday, as were schools in surrounding districts. Maize had a previously scheduled day off for parent-teacher conferences.

"In the Catholic schools we don't receive transportation from anyone, so our parents have always taken the responsibility for transporting the children to school," superintendent Bob Voboril said Thursday. "The roads are open, people can get around, and so we think schoolchildren should be in school."

Extracurricular activities in the Wichita public schools went on as scheduled Thursday night, and it was up to coaches whether sports activities went on during the day, Arensman said. A decision about whether classes would be canceled today was to be made Thursday night.

Thursday was the fifth snow day of the public-school year. The district is allowed five snow days a year without having to make up the time.

Any school days called off from now on this school year will have to be made up, but Arensman said that would not affect any future decisions regarding whether to have a snow day.

"Parents need to know we don't make these decisions lightly, and we consider all sides and we understand it can be an inconvenience for parents," but frost-bite-potential weather took precedence Thursday, she said.

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