April 2017: Snow dazed and confused

(The following article originally appeared in The Coast, April 6, 2017.)

Cindy Littlefair is a member of the Halifax Regional School Board, and she wants to know what you think should be included in the principles for the School and Bus Cancellation policy. Let her know at clittlefair@hrsb.ca.

Snow dazed and confused
Should safety trump resilience when it comes to canceling school?
By Cindy Littlefair

I start muttering and twitching even before I’m out of bed. The cell phone on the other side of the room has “dinged” and because it’s 6 am on a winter weekday, I know that a text has just arrived, saying “All schools in HRSB will be closed today.”

They’re words that strike fear and loathing and more than a little disbelief in an increasing number of parents in HRM. Panic: What are we going to do with the kids today? Anger: Why can’t we decide for ourselves whether to go to school? Incredulity: Is it really possible to miss this much school and still get a year’s worth of education? And a bonus question: What’s the take-away for kids when school is halted by weather?

That last point has turned cancellation-forecasting into a game with kids. Snow? Freezing rain? “There won’t be any school tomorrow, bet you $5.” Many believe kids have become conditioned, set-up for expecting a day off.

The public, through the HRSB governing board, has one tool in its kit for providing direction to the superintendent on the topic of weather-related cancellations. It’s called the School and Bus Cancellation Policy. The statement of principles, the bit written by the governing board, says this: “The superintendent or designate will cancel school when severe weather or poor road conditions are considered to be a threat to the safety or health of students and staff.”

The policy was last revised in 2011. An unprecedented number of the public took part via their schools. As a result the policy is highly representative of the opinions of the day. It expresses what we wanted. And what did we want? Safety. We wanted school cancelled when there was a threat to safety. Safety, it would appear, is what we valued most.

Few can argue with safety as a value. It’s something we want the superintendent to keep in mind. But recent responses to certain cancellations suggest there are other things we now want as well. Some people want to see resilience reflected. Or self-reliance. Or a can-do attitude. If so, how do we express them? At 5am on a winter morning, it’s the expression of our values and beliefs as expressed in principles that a superintendent reaches for in the form of their procedures.

We all think we could do it better. And we all seem to realize that there is no way to win universal agreement for the decision. Cancel the buses and open the schools? Critics say if it’s not safe to drive, it’s not safe to walk. Let school-based staff, teachers and others, decide whether they can make it to school? The current principles and collective agreements don’t allow that, safety again. Decide by family of schools? Again, the policy says “safety first” and the decision is always based on the best info at 5am. Delayed starts offer some hope and they’re being explored. In the meantime the current superintendent’s doing what he can with what they’ve got.

My 6am twitching and muttering erupts into a burst of righteous indignation, hyperbole and melodrama. “I know what the board should do,” I say to my empty bedroom, “it should follow the lead of industry and post its own version of the ‘Days lost to accidents’ tracker displayed at factory gates.” And what would it say at this point in the school year? “Four hundred thousand instruction days lost due to cancellation”—eight days times 50,000 students. Maybe we’re OK with that and maybe we’re not. Either way, it’s time to give it a think. Is safety the thing we value most? Or is there room in there for education?

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