Patti Bacchus: Check your snow-day privilege

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      I don’t remember having “snow days” when I was a kid growing up in Vancouver. Sure, we had snow, but I can’t recall anyone closing the schools because of it.

      If they did, it would have been fun and I would have stayed home and played with my sisters all morning, and my mom would have made us a nice, hot lunch. We would have probably watched TV in the afternoon (my sisters loved watching Divorce Court, much to my mother’s disapproval) while our wet mittens and boots dried by the radiator. Mom would have probably baked cookies by that point, and it would have been a heavenly day.

      It was big news when Metro Vancouver public-school boards declared a snow day on Tuesday (February 12), and it was the first time in a long time it’s happened. How long? I can’t even remember, and I’ve been trying to figure it out. The Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) communications staff couldn’t tell me either. I remember more than most about the VSB, and I’m at a loss to recall the last time schools were closed for a full day due to snow.

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      My former VSB trustee colleague Jane Bouey said she remembers a time about 15 years ago when the VSB and Surrey superintendents called a snow-day closure based on a forecast of a big snowfall that never arrived and took a lot of ribbing for it—and, I suspect, more than a few complaints from parents who had to go to work that day. Other long-time VSB teachers have told me the last one they can remember was in 1991, while some recall students getting sent home early one day in 2003 due to heavy snow.

      Happy kids and some stressed parents

      The news was met with glee by many kids and a lot of parents, at least according to my Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Snow days are fun for families with a parent with the option to stay home on a school day and for those who have food to feed their kids.

      They’re stressful for those who risk losing their jobs or facing disciplinary action if they don’t show up for work. They’re tough on those who can take the day off but will not get paid, especially if they’re among the many working poor who struggle to feed their kids after paying rent and other expenses. They’re brutal for kids who depend on their school’s breakfast and lunch programs to fill their hungry tummies. And they’re dangerous for kids who are left in unsafe, unsupervised settings instead of being at school.

      How snow day decisions are made

      When the snow starts to fall, the superintendents of the public Metro Vancouver school districts—which include Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Burnaby, Delta, New Westminster, Coquitlam, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, and so on—monitor the situation and confer with each other and their municipalities, usually late at night and very early in the morning. The default decision is to keep schools open if at all possible except for when there are serious safety risks for students and staff travelling to and from school.

      They make a decision by about 6:30 a.m., although sometimes earlier. If they make the call too early, they could end up with what Bouey recalled happening that time: closed schools and clear streets. They try to be as consistent as possible in their decision, keeping in mind that they collectively employ thousands of parents who may work in different districts than where their kids go to school.

      It’s not an easy decision. The superintendents consider several factors, including how much travelling risk will be involved for staff and students. Are main roads cleared? Is public transit operating? Have crews been able to clear access to schools and staff parking lots?

      They also know that closing schools for a snow day will put a lot of vulnerable kids at risk. Many may end up in unsafe, unsupervised situations and some may have nothing to eat and will miss out on their school’s breakfast, lunch, and snack programs that are provided for children from low-income families.

      Like so many difficult decisions that face school boards and their superintendents, it’s often the most vulnerable children and families—those affected by poverty and those with special needs—who are harmed by what seem like fairly simple decisions to others. Parents of students with special needs already have much to deal with. Losing a school day and the support that goes with it adds to the pressures they already bear.

      Parents with precarious low-wage jobs often only get paid for the hours they work. Some only keep their jobs if they show up. A day without pay—or, worse, a job loss—is extra hard on low-income families and in worst cases can lead to homelessness if it means a missed rent payment.

      If you don’t think it’s safe, don’t send your kids

      As a school trustee for eight years, I got a lot of complaints from parents and students who were mad when schools didn’t close on all snowy days. I’d remind parents they could—and should—make the decision themselves about whether it was safe for their kids to get to and from school. They could keep them home if they wanted to. It says so right on the VSB website: “If for any reason a parent/guardian feels that a child cannot travel safely to school, then they should make other arrangements.

      “During extreme weather conditions, it is also common for police and other authorities to advise citizens to avoid unnecessary travel. Parents should take this advice as well. Students will not be penalized for lack of attendance under such poor weather conditions. Students are reminded to wear appropriate clothing for the conditions. When sidewalks and roads are slippery, students walking to school should take extra care.”

      The complications of calling a snow day

      Superintendents making the tough call about whether to close schools for a snow day think not only about the impact on vulnerable kids but also have to consider what will happen if the snow keeps coming and conditions remain poor for several days. Do they keep calling snow days? How many is too many?

      Time lost to snow days can’t be rescheduled or made up. Lesson plans may have to be adjusted to cover the curriculum in fewer days than planned. They also know food that has been purchased and prepped for meal programs will go to waste. They have to think about programs like daycares that rent space in school-board buildings and whether they will be able to operate during closure days. They have to consider if special school events can be rescheduled to a later date or missed altogether.

      Someone tweeted to me that superintendents don’t close for snow days because they don’t like paying teachers for days they don’t work. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Snow-day closures will actually save school districts money because of all the on-call employees (substitute teachers and support workers) that won’t be paid that day. That’s why schools have additional, scheduled closure days during the year: to save money and balance their budgets.

      Whether you like snow days or not may be a measure of your privilege

      I was lucky as a kid, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I led a privileged life compared to many others who weren’t so lucky. My family didn’t worry about paying rent or buying groceries. My mom had the option to stay home and look after me and my four older siblings. When my kids were in school, my husband and I had the flexibility to be home whenever our kids needed us to be. We could afford to feed our kids good food. We were fortunate—and privileged—to be in that situation and know that many parents are not.

      I had parents tweet me this week saying parents can “choose” to stay home and look after their kids if schools close due to snow. I doubt they all can, and for many, if they do, it means they lose the day’s pay. Others will struggle with the decision about leaving their kids unsupervised.

      Parents of children with special needs won’t have an easy time finding someone to care for their kids, so they will face some tough decisions as well.

      If you’re stamping your feet and blasting your school board for not calling a snow day every time it snows, stop and consider why they’re reluctant to do so. If you’re one of the lucky parents or kids who enjoyed this week’s snow day, be thankful for your privilege and remember not every family is as fortunate.

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      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.

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