A message from Stuart Miller, Director of Education for the Halton District School Board
Today, Wednesday, February 27, was the fourth snow day called by the Halton District School Board (HDSB) resulting in a Board-wide closure of schools and administrative offices this school year. In addition, there have been three days where complete school bus cancellations have occurred and one day prior to the Winter Break when buses were cancelled in Zone 3.
This is an unusually high number of bus cancellations/school closures and is not typical of most winters. There is no question this has placed pressure on our communities, families, staff and students. Furthermore, these are not decisions that are easy to make and indeed involve several consultations within and external to the HDSB.
I would like to first explain the process that goes into making these decisions.
1. The overriding consideration for either a school closure or a bus cancellation is the safety and well-being of our 65,000 students. Although, like all supervisors, I am concerned for the health and safety of our staff, the decision is based on the impact or potential impact on students.
I fully recognize the vast majority of people still have to get to work, no matter what the weather conditions are. The same expectations exist for our staff. As a result I can state unequivocally the primary driver for these decisions is the safety of our students.
2. We have our transportation and communication staff monitoring conditions as inclement weather is predicted for the Halton region. They keep me abreast of the alerts, warnings and statements prior to a weather system moving in. We monitor the forecast to determine the best decisions before the snow arrives, including if there are snowfall warnings that may impact the afternoon commute (which is what occurred today). Our decision must consider the ability for students to get home safely at the end of the day, when weather conditions are predicted to deteriorate further.
We will often use social media as a tool to remind families to monitor the weather prior to these weather events. In the past, we have announced a closure or cancellation the day before a weather event, but this has received very mixed results. There have been instances where we have announced a closure the day before and the weather has changed overnight, resulting in schools being closed on a beautiful sunny day.
3. Starting at 3:30 a.m. Halton Student Transportation Services (HSTS), our consortium that operates independently but provides transportation to both the HDSB and the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB), have road spotters out all over the Region monitoring road conditions, on main roads as well as side streets and rural sideroads. The road spotters report back to their managers on road conditions. Those managers then report to the General Manager of HSTS. As early as 4:30 a.m. As Director, I get a phone call or text with an update on road conditions throughout Halton as well as the expected weather forecast for the day.
4. Also at this time, the HSTS General Manager consults with those in similar positions around the GTA. The General Manager will then make a recommendation to me about bus cancellations, usually between 5 and 5:30 a.m. The final decision is mine as Director of Education, however it is generally considered prudent to follow a recommendation made by those who are responsible for transporting our students. If the recommendation is to cancel buses (either across the Board or in particular zones), that almost always becomes the decision.
5. Beginning at approximately 5 a.m., I consult with Directors of Education in other GTA boards. This is done by phone, text and email. My first call is with the Director of the HCDSB. The other Boards I will be in touch with are Hamilton Wentworth DSB, Peel DSB, York Region DSB, Durham DSB, Upper Grand DSB, Grand Erie DSB, District School Board of Niagara, Waterloo Region DSB and the Toronto DSB. All of these Boards also consult with their transportation staff and their Catholic board colleagues. These conversations last from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and include constant updates of the current and forecasted weather conditions. Our Board's Inclement Weather Administrative Procedure is to communicate the decision by 6:30 a.m.
I can assure you the decision to cancel buses or close schools is not taken lightly. I am fully aware this puts a strain on some families, as one or both parents may have to take a day off work. Moreover, it may result in a scramble to arrange child care and add an unforeseen cost to the family. It can also cause anxiety amongst some of our students. For example, some students are challenged by a change in their routine, and that routine includes the regularity of a school schedule. Some senior students applying for post-secondary are ready to complete an evaluation they hope will increase their marks and better their chances to get the post-secondary placement they desire. Extracurriculars are cancelled resulting in students possibly missing games or performances they have spent so much time preparing for. Principals who may have had meetings set up with parents will now have to reschedule. In today's fast-paced world, that can be a difficult task for both the parents and the school. I fully appreciate the challenges these days may cause to some families and their children; consequently it is not a decision made without considerable thought or angst. I fully understand students are losing a day of school.
Finally, I am aware this is Canada and we do get winter weather, but it will always be debatable whether the correct decision has been made or not. Whatever decision we make, we hear feedback both in favour of the decision and to the contrary. If we only cancel buses, we hear that is a good decision and we also hear the contrary. When we close schools, we are asked why we did so, and when we don't cancel we are asked why we didn't. When only one Board cancels, questions are asked such as why them and not the HDSB and vice versa.
The reality is this is sometimes an easy decision and sometimes a very difficult one. Sometimes we have called it right and sometimes the weather changes and we may have overreacted. However, I can absolutely assure you when a decision is made, it is made with the best of intentions and it is intended to keep students safe, which is our collective and foremost responsibility and obligation.
Thank you for your understanding and patience.
Director of Education
Halton District School Board