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Cold temps have schools burning through emergency days

Decision to call off not an easy one, superintendents say

Anthony Couch and Matthew Graham, enjoy their day off of school by playing basketball at the Ottawa Y. A number of schools are having to use up emergency days due to recent weather events.
Anthony Couch and Matthew Graham, enjoy their day off of school by playing basketball at the Ottawa Y. A number of schools are having to use up emergency days due to recent weather events.

Recent snow days are pushing back calendars for school districts, but none have been pushed as far as La Salle-Peru High School.

The district already opened late in September due to completion of the school’s renovation project, which includes climate-controlled facilities, but now snow days have pushed them even further to the point where students have yet to take finals for their first semester.

Superintendent Steven Wrobleski joked on a Facebook post updating parents that “this winter will be forever known as the year that first semester never ended!”

“Everything is great in terms of the new facility,” Wrobleski said in a phone interview. “It’s a great environment. The struggle is now that we’re going to have to make up five days and go to Friday, June 21.”

The district has called five snow days as of Tuesday, which extends the schedule to its maximum of five emergency days in the schedule. Any more time off would be considered an Act of God day, which the district would need to have approved by the Regional Office of Education. Act of God days are not required to make up and could be one less day of instruction for students.

Wrobleski said some students have taken the extended schedule in stride and others just want to get their finals over with and jump into summer break sooner.

The situation is a particularly unique one for La Salle-Peru High School, but they’re not the only schools having to take a hard look at their calendar this year.

Schools across Starved Rock Country have been burning through a number of their reserved emergency days this year and may have to start dipping into Act of God days as well.

A number of schools canceled school on Wednesday with Accuweather predicting a high of minus 13 degrees and a low of minus 25 degrees with a "Real Feel" of minus 32 degrees.

The decision to call a school day is one not made lightly by superintendents and often begins with them taking a tour of the roads themselves, usually around 4 a.m.

Ottawa Elementary School District Superintendent Cleve Threadgill said he’s often on the roads early in the morning getting a feel for what the drive may be like for families of 2,000 students, the largest district in the county, but weather can often change quickly between the time the call is made to when it’s time for school to begin, including the condition of the roads.

“Obviously first and foremost is thinking about the safety of the kids,” Threadgill said in a phone call on Monday.

The district has officially used all five of its emergency days by calling off Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Threadgill said roads were rough at 4:15 a.m. on Monday but were significantly better at 10 a.m. Still, because it wasn’t deemed as safe earlier, it was an entire day lost for the district.

Streator High School has used all five of its emergency days as well as an extra day for calling off Wednesday and Thursday.

Superintendent Matt Seaton said he’s also often on the roads early, but noted the recent closures were due to projected wind chill temperatures.

Last Friday, the district chose to hold classes despite a projected wind chill of minus 16 degrees.

“That’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t enough to cancel school that day,” Seaton said.

He added it also sets a precedent: should the school call off every time the temperature is expected to drop below a certain point?

“Until the weather is here I hate to be a weatherman and predict these,” Seaton added.

One misconception he’s seen online is the belief that the state doesn’t give school districts state money for calling a snow day.

“Money has nothing to do with it,” he said.

The needs of an elementary school district differ from those of a high school where students don’t have their own form of transportation or easy access to their home.

Threadgill noted a decision to not release students early last Tuesday as many, including Ottawa High School, were doing created some online “chatter.”

Threadgill said generally once the students arrive at school, that’s the safest place for them to be unless an emergency is present. His greatest fear is sending a young child home via a bus and having them arrive at a locked door in the cold.

“We would have to send a mass phone call to parents and have them drop what they’re doing or make arrangements and sometimes a person may have a job where they’re not allowed to have a cellphone on and now you have kindergartners going home to no one,” Threadgill said. “The thought of sending someone home to a locked door. That’s our concern.”

Complicated bus routes mean drivers can’t drop each student off individually.

“It’s easy to make a call to let out at 11:30 a.m. but it’s not easy for every parent and guardian to make arrangements at the last second,” Threadgill said.

The one thing that seems to be on most superintendents' minds is a desire to put the season behind them.

“I’ll be happy when this part is over,” Threadgill said. “I don’t mind a little snow but this is a little over the top.”

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