Education: Secret School - Why closing a school after snowfall is not a decision to be taken lightly

Walk to School in the snow in Crosspool
Walk to School in the snow in Crosspool
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The flurry of wintry weather we had a few weeks ago had headteachers in Sheffield schools reaching for their policies on bad weather.

It was only a light dusting of snow and no schools had to close their doors, but staff across the city were updated on policy – just in case.

It makes good sense to be well-prepared.

After all, we’re not out of the woods yet.

As we enter February, some of us will be able to look back and remember severe downfalls of snow coming in this chilly month.

Kids of all ages love a snow day and playground chatter when the first flakes fall often revolves around the chances of being sent home or getting the following day off.

Conversely, no headteacher wants to close their school, and any decision to do so is a very last resort.

The school’s bad weather policy will tell staff who to call if they can’t get in on time – and it’s when this information is gathered together that a decision can be made.

Schools very rarely close due to snow.

The amount of snow needed to cause school closures just doesn’t fall on Sheffield that often.

During 2009 and 2010, there was a ridiculous amount of snow – some schools were shut for a week. Prior to that, there hadn’t been widespread snow closures for years – and few since.

February may or may not bring snow and school closures. The forecasters can’t predict it this far ahead, so I’m not going to try.

But one thing I can forecast accurately: if city schools do have to close because of snowfall, there will be a furore.

Facebook and Twitter will be ablaze with people moaning about skiving teachers, office workers will moan about them not having a day off, and working parents will grumble about needing childcare.

One of the most blatant and unhelpful examples of teachers being mocked on snow days came in a television interview during the winter of relentless snow when a councillor criticised their apparent laziness and said it just wasn’t good enough.

So why do schools shut when it snows?

The principal reason is safety. A school with 1,200 students turning up at 9am can quickly become the centre of a dangerous situation if there aren’t enough teachers there to look after them.

Teachers tend to live further away from the school than the students, making the prospect of greeting them on time more difficult if the roads are clogged up.

There is also the safety of the site.

In 2010, more than one South Yorkshire secondary school closed for an entire week – keeping the doors shut even when the roads were back to normal.

The reason was heavy snow and thick ice across the large sites these schools occupied.

If there is a substantial risk of students falling over, breaking bones or receiving even more serious injuries, the school cannot open.

A common thing schools do if they know their staff may be half an hour or so late is to open in the mid-morning, perhaps at 10am.

This depends on where teachers are travelling from; a school in Rotherham with many staff coming from west Sheffield may get calls from teachers saying the journey in heavy snow is likely to leave them a couple of hours late.

In that case, even a mid-morning opening may be too dangerous.

If there is to be a snow day, schools owe it to the community to make the decision early in the morning.

A good headteacher will make the call with the information they have at 7am, knowing that there are hundreds of families living in the local area who may need to make alternative arrangements.

There are, though, headteachers who leave it as late as possible to make the call.

There is one South Yorkshire school that has made the decision to close after 8.30am on more than one occasion.

That’s simply terrible management – parents may have left for work, leaving kids stranded.

A school closure shouldn’t happen at the last minute if it doesn’t have to.

Schools should be sending texts and emails to parents very early in the morning to let them know about a late opening or closure so that family plans can be put in place.

When you consider the safety of the school, location of staff, the need to make a decision first thing in the morning and the responsibility to inform the community as soon as possible, closing a school is a complex decision that should not be taken lightly.

Opening with a skeleton staff and letting people drift in throughout the morning may be fair enough for offices and shops, but it’s not going to work in a school.

Letting a thousand kids have a snowball fight on the school yard until their teacher makes it in… well, it’s a national news story waiting to happen.

Hopefully, the doors of all our schools will stay open during February.

Incidentally, one of my teacher friends telephoned the office of the Sheffield councillor at 9am the day after his TV interview.

The teacher was going to explain reasons why schools have to close, but the councillor’s secretary said he hadn’t made it in yet.

You’ll never guess why.

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