Snow Days Are Expensive, Dangerous, and For Students Exhilerating
by Caylee Winpigler
photos by Michael Winpigler
The one year anniversary of the 2016 monster snowstorm is swiftly approaching. Frederick County students bravely faced the torture of being stuck at home for an entire week during the storm. While students were kept begrudgingly cozy in their homes, school and street maintenance officials battled the weather and conditions to bring them back to school.
The 2016 monster of a snowstorm is not a singular occurrence. Frederick County Public Schools have had to deal with a wide variety of snowy conditions throughout their educational careers. Not only do school officials have to juggle these unpleasant conditions, but the street maintenance men and women, who are on the front line, also must face challenges regarding snow.
The procedure that both groups use depends upon the expected weather Superintendent Dr. Teresa Alban stated, “Everything depends on the type of winter that Maryland has and Maryland’s weather can be very variable. The spike in days [off] is usually when we have a major event like a blizzard or a severe ice storm. I remember one year back in the 80’s or 90’s when we had several inches of ice and schools were closed for a whole week!”
The instance that Alban remembers is quite similar to the 2016 snow event, which Alban remembered with distinct clarity, “We had conference calls everyday to get updates on the progress with clearing roads, clearing parking lots, and shoveling out sidewalks and entrances to the schools. We had to depend on both the city and county road crews as well, and it was a lot of work for everyone. We really hoped we would be able to open by Thursday or Friday, and people wanted us to call off the whole week, but we were hoping our teams would be able to get us back into school. A student sent me a message saying that he appreciated our ‘growth mindset’ in not giving up and keeping on trying!”
Since July 2011, Alban has held her position as FCPS Superintendent and has had a total of 36 years of experience as an educator. Through these years, she has developed an understanding of how to manage these panic inducing instances, and so have her fellow Frederick employees.
FCPS’s Director of Transportation Fred Punturiero explained the process they go through to handle snow and to determine what call to make, “We plan what we are going to do based on the timing of the weather event. For example, if snow is scheduled to arrive at 3am on Friday, I begin communicating with County and City Roads Thursday afternoon/early evening. The transportation team will then go out Friday morning around 3:30am and begin our assessment of the road conditions, schools, and neighborhoods. Between 3:30am and 4:30am, I am in constant contact with Frederick County/City, neighboring counties, and recommendations from the transportation managers. At 4:30am, I contact the Chief Operating Officer (Paul Lebo) with my recommendation who then contacts Dr. Alban for the final decision. As always students’ safety is our priority.”
Six years ago, the Superintendent of FCPS did not make the final decision, but Alban thought it was crucial that she have a hand in making the decision, “Before I arrived, the Executive Director of Fiscal Services made the call. As Superintendent, I felt it was my responsibility to make the final decision and we work hard to get the word out by 5a.m.”
Where does FCPS share school schedule changes? Alban described the resources that students, faculty, and parents can use, “We have started to use many more forms of communication to announce snow delays or cancellations (FOF [Find Out First, through email and text], Facebook, webpage, Twitter) in addition to calling TV stations and radio stations and using Channel 18.”
While the methods of the school system and transportation departments are now streamlined, their methods were not always so fluid.
Michael Winpigler, Frederick City’s Street Maintenance Superintendent, admitted that the blizzard that happened in 2010 was a learning curve for the City and County staff, “Obviously 2010 & 2016 stand out most [in my memory] due to the sheer quantity of snow we received. These were historic storms and were extremely challenging for our staff. We learned some hard lessons in 2010 [and] the information garnered helped us plan and implement a strategy for the 2016 event that worked very well.”
The 2010 blizzard still bothers some of those who had to live through it like Alban, “I was the Chief Operating Officer [at the time] in Howard County Public Schools System and that was a tough winter. Two of the blizzards came very close to each other and our biggest concern was the weight of all that snow on the roofs of the schools. It was scary.”
Another element of fear, that Punturiero touched on, is the unpredictability of snow, “It happened around 6:00am; we started to get flurries, those flurries then came down faster and all of a sudden we had an inch of snow in less than 20 minutes. This weather event came through the area so fast it dropped an inch or more in some areas. We had to put in place a two hour delay and asked buses already on the road to stay where they were. You could not drive a vehicle safely in the county or the city; it took everyone by surprise. Our neighboring counties were caught in the same situation as we were.”
Even with frightening situations like those creeping up, the faculty have mantras they repeat to themselves to help get through a rough situation. Winpigler explained his own personal mantra, “It is a cliché, but we live by it here, ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’. I know it may not be a popular thought process but I prefer the larger events because they are much easier to plan for these types of events.”
In addition to having a calming thought process, tensions can be eased with the advancements that have been made in technology. Technology can, sometimes, accurately predict weather events that help everyone to be better prepared. Although this is the case, Alban had a warning to share, “You cannot always trust the forecast! That is why we generally do not make the call until the morning. Also, that snow events are expensive–especially blizzards. We generally have to pay a lot of overtime to get everything cleaned up after a blizzard, and we go through a lot of ice melt supplies.”
One thing makes the call hard to remain unbiased about is the staff’s own family. Winpigler, who has four children in the school system, laughed and said, “Having children is an interesting variable,” but later claimed that it is not a factor in the decision making process.
However, Deputy Director of Public Works, Marc Stachowski (bear in mind that he has no children) had a different viewpoint on school cancellations and delays. He believes that it is not instilling in children a proper sense of responsibility, “It is my opinion that there should be no days missed for weather as I think educating our children, even if there is difficulty getting to school, is more important than teaching children that it’s ok to stay home for weather related reasons.”
Stachowski does not only support this unique idea, but he has another controversial regarding school’s schedules, “I believe that children should go to school year-round to get them in the practice of working year-round. This would be the best education that any child could learn as the recently graduated students seem to not be ready for working a full 40 hours plus each week.”
Obviously these are not popularly held ideals, but they do make sense. Regardless of anyone’s thought process, student’s safety is the number one concern. This being the case, school, to student’s elation, needs to be close to ensure they are safe.
Currently the weather is not conducive for any upcoming snow days, but keep your eyes and ears out. It will never hurt to be extra cautious on the roads any time of year in any weather situation, but the trickiest scenarios present themselves during winter. Be careful and make sure to do your snow dances and snow day prompting rituals often, especially if you are a senior!