Education column: Community safety comes before learning in classes in bad weather

Last week was a tough one for Sheffield schools, just as it was for many across the country.

As the ‘Beast from the East’ swept in, bringing heavy snowfall and Arctic temperatures, headteachers throughout the city faced difficult decisions.

At first, the week of freezing weather seemed not to be as bad as predicted. Some even labelled it ‘Hysteria from Siberia.’

But, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday it lived up to its billing and crippled our education network.

Schools reacted in different ways to the crazy weather, most dealing with the situation admirably and a handful still leaving a lot to be desired.

I have spoken to people working in many Sheffield schools since last week. In true teacher-marking style, here is my “Three stars and a wish” feedback for the city’s headteachers.

Star 1: The way many headteachers reacted to the heavy snowfall during the day on Wednesday was fantastic.

There was obsessive checking of the weather forecast, frantic liaising with other schools and a monitoring of the personal situations involving staff members.

Halfway through the day, the sensible decision was made to send staff home and allow parents to collect their children. Those with farthest to go went first, with nearby and senior staff staying to ensure the kids were safe.

Decisions such as these are difficult to make because they can so easily draw criticism – from parents, media and, in the past, politicians. But the brave call allowed teachers and support staff to get home safely.

Star 2: It became evident, as the snow continued to fall and the roads filled in with the white stuff, that Thursday was going to be a non-starter.

For some, it meant that staff couldn’t get in on time. Of course, when there are not enough adults to supervise the children, the school day cannot begin. It would also have caused a nightmare for many parents getting to the school.

Perhaps most importantly, and least understood by many, is the way the weather can make the school site unsafe. Freezing temperatures that plummeted to -7°C made paths around the school treacherous.

Many heads foresaw what it was going to be like and made the decision to close school the day before. This helped parents to plan ahead and reduced last-minute stress in the morning.

The council’s Twitter feedback kicked in and was operated really well, meaning the city’s parents and carers were well-informed.

Star 3: Not all schools closed. Praise is deserved for those headteachers who, against all odds, managed to keep things ticking over.

It needs a staff that live fairly close and an ability to keep the school site safe, but hats off to the handful of schools that managed to open their doors on Thursday and Friday last week.

Wish: There are some schools that manage the whole ‘snow day’ situation appallingly. With an extreme sense of civic pride, some headteachers have the opinion that school must open at all costs. Any time closed is a failure of duty. The school simply must open.

One secondary school in South Yorkshire gleefully announced that it was staying open. That same school headteacher realised that it was an impossible mission around 10am. They then closed the school. When extreme weather hits, it’s the community that has to come first. The questions that must be asked are about staff and student safety in school and on their journey.

It’s not about teaching and learning at all cost. Closing the school in heavy snow to keep people safe is not the end of the world.

And there’s a part of me that loves to see families in the community interacting on a snow day.

On Thursday and Friday, there were mums and dads sledging with their kids in local fields, laughing and joking during snowball fights and enjoying a hot chocolate in the café to warm up.

Let’s not begrudge families a little golden time on snow days.