Why I don’t like Snow
I wrote the article below for the Echo a few weeks ago when we had our last snow. At the moment I’m sitting at home (Sunday 18th March) looking out at 6 inches of snow, where I am over by Bristol and wondering what to do about tomorrow. Have a look at what was going through my head the last time.
It’s snow easy business closing a school
I’m sitting here at home just now (Friday 2nd March) looking out on the winter wonderland that is my garden, happy that covered in snow, it finally looks as nice as my neighbour’s garden. It’s very strange being off on what should be a school day. It feels uncomfortable, even though there’s absolutely no way we can be open today. As a Head I’ve never enjoyed snow days.
Making a decision to close a school in any situation is a hard one. Snow closures are probably the hardest decision of all. Last year in the old Eastern High buildings, we had an electrical power failure and a subsequent risk of fire. It was an easy decision, there was no question with regards to closing the school. With snow it’s different.
Firstly, you have to consider when to announce the closure. Parents (especially in primary schools) need enough notice to organise childcare if both parents are still going to be working, however, forecasts can often be wrong. It’s embarrassing for the school and infuriating for parents if the school announces it will be closed and then the impending devastation that was predicted turns out to be nothing more than a minor flurry. And so, it becomes a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.
This week was very much one of those situations. On the Wednesday all the schools were looking at the forecast wondering if they should close on the Thursday. It was one of those situations where it looked as if the conditions would be fine in the morning but begin to deteriorate halfway through the day. I spoke with a couple of heads who were hesitating like me, wondering about the best course of action.
Closing a school halfway through a day is the worst scenario. You want to ensure pupils can get home safely and ensure there will be someone there for them when they return and so it’s not just a simple process of telling the students to go home. Every parent needs to be contacted and tutors need to ensure that all pupils will be able to gain access to their homes. With primary schools most children also need to be collected which makes things even more difficult.
On Wednesday, we also had to consider the staff situation. Like many schools in Cardiff, we have a fair amount of staff who live up in the valleys and on hills where conditions are worse. They would need time to get home if the weather deteriorated. This would mean a lack of staff in the school to properly supervise the pupils.
I remember a few years ago when I worked as a Head in Weston super Mare, a huge snowfall was predicted. It was the first one in quite a few years and as usual most of the Heads in the town including myself were sceptical as to whether or not it would be as bad as predicted. (Unfortunately, media hysteria encourages you to think cry wolf). It also doesn’t help that coming from Scotland, I’m always the first to say – “Well we never closed schools when I was a kid”. As a result, I opened the school next day, along with some other schools and of course the storm turned up midday as predicted. Trying to contact all parents was difficult as some mobile numbers were out of date (PARENTS - MAKE SURE SCHOOL HAS YOUR UP TO DATE CONTACT DETAILS). Eventually, quite a few hours later we were able to release the final pupils. By then the snow was lying thick. Most of the staff had gone and only a few of us were still on site to close up. It took me 6 hours to drive the 25 miles home that day and my deputy became stranded crossing the Mendips and had to stay the night in her car (she kept in touch by phone and was okay in the morning!).
This year my wife had me well warned, but still, like many other heads, I resisted the urge to close on Thursday. I was dithering away all day Wednesday, knowing that parents would need notice, but be worrying about closing the school needlessly. It looked as if it would be a repeat of my Weston experience. Thankfully, the Council sent all the schools an email recommending that they should consider closing, as the weather alert had risen to high Amber. Myself and our Chair of Governors (we’re not alone in making a decision like this) were so grateful for that email, it was decisive and provided a real steer for all schools. It also took away a lot of the guilt felt when closing a school. A selfish reason I know, but very real.
Perhaps, in hindsight, we could have told parents in advance that the school would close at midday, but it’s always easy to talk about what could have been. In any case we would have been short on staff. My daughter in Year 11 (not in Cardiff) arrived back home by 10.00am on Thursday after the decision was made at her school to close. It couldn’t have been easy for the school, but nor would it have been easy for those parents working.
On the positive side – when I announced on the intercom a few minutes before the end of the day, that school would be closed the following day, I could hear a cheer ring round the school (I’m presuming from pupils not staff!). And why not? There is little snow these days and young people only have a few opportunities to play in it. I hope they’ve enjoyed themselves.
Now I’m waiting to see if it begins to thaw for Monday. It looks as it if will. Will enough staff be able to drive in? Will the site be safe? You’ll know the answer when reading this, but at the moment, I certainly don’t.