Last updated: January 14. 2014 3:09PM - 1231 Views
ROBERT TOMKAVAGE rtomkavage@theabingtonjournal.com

Buses line up outside Clarks Summit Elementary School to drop off students after another two-hour delay on Jan. 10.
Buses line up outside Clarks Summit Elementary School to drop off students after another two-hour delay on Jan. 10.
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Did you ever wonder how Abington Heights makes its decision to delay or cancel school due to winter weather concerns?

Abington Heights Superintendent of Schools Michael Mahon, who is tasked with making the ultimate call, explained the district’s process, which he agreed is partly based on meteorology and partly on his own road test.

According to Mahon, from early October through April, he’s always watching the weather. He even has a cellphone with a large screen to monitor the local radar while testing road conditions.

“Anytime … there is any chance of snow, cold, or ice, I usually get up around 4:15 a.m. and check The Weather Channel and local radar,” he said. “If there is any precipitation coming down and the roads look bad, I hop in my car and take a ride. I drive around to different parts of the district to try to get a sense of the roads. I feel that if I’m making the decision, I should get out and see the conditions. If I’m going up Noble Road, to the high school, and it’s still snow covered, and I can’t get up the hill, then all the high school kids and buses aren’t going to get up the hill either.”

Mahon is also in contact with the district’s Director of Maintenance Erik Elliott, who sometimes stays overnight at the administration building to make sure the parking lots are cleared and the heat and lights are on at the schools in the morning.

“I call him to get his sense of what’s going on,” he said. “Erik is in contact with our bus contractors, Rohrer Bus Service, Buranich Transportation, Buranich Busing, Bee’s Bus Company, Degilio Services Inc., and Schirg School Buses, and calls people who have a sense of the roads, particularly out in Newton and Ransom Township. I also call neighboring superintendents, mainly at Lakeland and Lackawanna Trail, who, themselves, are in contact with their transportation directors and PennDOT.”

“Most of the decisions I make come from my own experience of driving very early in the morning, but certainly all the other people that are involved play a very big role in the decision. In the end, we just try to make the best decision that we possibly can, but it’s always a hard decision.”

According to Mahon, he knows his decision has ramifications for staff, students, parents and the school calendar.

“There are two things that we try to balance,” he said. “The first is student safety because we don’t want our students in a bad situation. The second thing is that we have to be very sensitive to the fact that every time we cancel or have a delay, it creates a hardship for parents, who are working, to make arrangements. We seek safety as a primary concern, but we also don’t want to delay or cancel unless it’s necessary. ”

The delays have not been a problem for Glenburn Township resident Christine Greco, who teaches at Scranton Prep, but she can sympathize with parents who have to make other arrangements.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Greco, who is a parent of a Clarks Summit Elementary School student. “As a teacher, I’m on the same schedule. I can’t imagine if I had to start work at 8 a.m.”

Mahon gave an example of how a weather report on a recent record-setting frigid day changed his thought process from having a two-hour delay to cancelling for the day.

“(The morning of Jan. 6) I was thinking we were going to have a delay on Tuesday,” he said. “Then, when I read the National Weather Service Warning, it mentioned potentially ‘life threatening’ conditions. This is my 14th year as superintendent, I’ve read these reports for 14 years, and I’ve never seen the words ‘life threatening’ used.

“I was thinking we might have to cancel so I called over to our transportation department. I said, ‘if we have school tomorrow, please notify the drivers to get their buses started early.’ They got back to us and said, ‘At certain temperatures diesel fuel starts to gel, and if does we’re not going to be able to do the runs.’”

Mahon decided to cancel school because the extreme cold was expected to last throughout the day.

“If we had a two-hour delay, the temperature would have went up, maybe, three degrees, but with the wind there would have been very little real difference,” he said. “That was the whole thought process that went into deciding that we should not be at school.”

No crystal ball to use

According to Mahon, it’s difficult to plan ahead when the weather can be unpredictable.

“A lot of it is trying to interpret the forecast and often times we look foolish,” he said. “The forecast could be calling for five inches of snow and we cancel for a few flurries. We’ve also had cases where we’ve come to school and we get a quick flash of snow when the buses out and we’ve had some very upset parents because we put the kids out in a bad situation.

“If we knew at 5:30 a.m. what the weather was going to be like at 1 p.m., it would be a lot easier, but we don’t have that benefit. There is no science to it, but we have some procedures in place and try to do the best possible thing, but every year we mess up and that’s just going to be the case because it’s the weather.”

According to Mahon, the biggest transportation threat to students’ safety is ice.

“The number one concern, by far, is freezing rain,” he said. “If we see pink on the radar early in the morning, you can anticipate a lot of snow on the road and adjust, but the biggest danger is black ice. If we see that its 30 to 33 degrees and raining and we see some pink on the radar, those are the situations, even though it might just be rain all over the place that we are very, very concerned .”

According to Mahon, the district has six snow days built into the calender. June 9, 10, 11, and 12, Apr.22, originally scheduled as an in service day, and May 23.

“We’ve had five days off already,” Mahon said, “and hopefully this is the end of it, but we’ve had a bad streak, for sure.”

The school has also operated on a two-hour delay five times due to winter weather.

Although Mahon described the recent flurry of cancellations as a “bad stretch,” he can remember times when the district was worse off early in the winter.

“We had a year here where the water was out for a week,” he said, “that was pretty bad. This is not good, but we’ve had years when we’ve had seven to 10 days off by this time. This is a bad stretch, particularly after the holiday, but overall we’re not in a really bad situation.”

To delay or not to delay?

According to Mahon, scheduling a two-hour delay has both advantages and disadvantages in contrast to a cancellation.

“The key to the two-hour delay is that we have great road crews up here,” he said. “Our boroughs, townships, and PennDOT make great efforts and we’re in touch with them all the time. If it’s snowing overnight, the two hours gives the road crews a chance to start clearing roads and getting salt down. Also, as traffic starts to roll down the roads, it starts to break up the snow. It’s a very valuable thing.”

While it makes the commute safer, it also takes away from classroom instruction.

“We never schedule delays lightly,” Mahon said. “A snow day, you make up hour for hour, but with early dismissals and delays you lose instructional time, which is a very serious thing. We’re always trying to balance if having a two-hour delay would substantially increase student safety. If the answer is yes, we end up having a delay.”

According to Lackawanna Trail Superintendent Matthew Rakauskas, the district made the decision to push graduation back one week, from June 6 to June 13, after the school has used six of its 10 allocated makeup days as of Wednesday, Jan. 15.

“In the spring when I’m proposing the year’s school calender to the Board of Education, I always set two graduation dates, A and B,” he said.

Rakauskas started the procedure after several parents voiced their complaints when the date was moved and family had already made travel plans in the past.

In order to account for the missed time, Jan. 20, Apr. 17, and June 4, 5, 6, and 9 will now be full days of school, with June 10, 11, 12, 13 set as the other potential makeup days.

Rakauskas added that if the district goes over the allotted days, he will meet with the Board of Education to discuss taking away other planned students days off or moving back graduation.

“In my six years as superintendent at Lackawanna Trail, we’ve never had to go beyond the makeup days, but this year seems different,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a Board of Education that allows me to have flexibility within our calendar.”

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