Social media turns up heat on leaders canceling school

Snowy and subzero days bring stress for parents and education officials alike over the decision to call off school.

Some parents were sent scrambling for child-care options Monday after a few school districts waited until hours before school to cancel classes.

The last-minute decisions prompted parental venting on social media, which has become the battleground between parents, students and school administrators over the decision to call for snow days.

“It hasn’t even snowed yet. And last night you sent out messages saying to expect school to be open. As a working parent this is infuriating,” one parent wrote Monday morning to the Grosse Pointe Public School System Facebook page after the Wayne County school district announced it was calling a snow day just hours before the start of school.

“Snowflake hype, will likely see them close for cold on Wednesday and reopen only when it hits 72 degrees,” read another unhappy parent post.

But superintendents across Metro Detroit say they are stressed out, too, about making the call and consider multiple factors to make their decisions. They also are hyper-aware that working parents need to know sooner rather than later about a decision to close school.

Novi schools superintendent Steve Matthews said the safety of students and staff as well as the state requirement to have 180 days of instruction every year weigh heavily on his mind.

To complicate matters for Monday, Matthews had to grapple with the fact that high school students in Novi — and many other Metro Detroit school districts — were scheduled to take final exams after missing a final exam day last week when school was closed Jan. 22 because of icy weather.

On top of that, students and parents were quick to take to social media on Sunday to make their own voices known. Many Novi students pleaded with Matthews — who has a reputation of using social media to directly engage with students — to call off school as winter storms approached southeast Michigan.

Matthews said he playfully posted a photograph on Twitter at 7:16 p.m. on Sunday of a fortune cookie message from dinner with his wife that read: “Tomorrow you will be showered with unexpected blessings.”

“This is what my fortune cookie told me tonight. What could it possibly mean?” tweeted Matthews, prompting students to encourage the school leader to order up a snow day.

Matthews did finally call off school at about 9:15 p.m. on Sunday after consulting with officials from the National Weather Service and a conference call with 20 Oakland County superintendents.

School was closed because of “forecasted snow that will lead to poor road conditions and hazardous driving conditions during the day,” the district told parents. Novi transports half of it 6,600 student body via buses, Matthew said, so student safety won out.

“It really does come down to balancing the demands of school safety and kids getting to school in a timely manner,” Matthews said. “School is a positive place for kids to be. We want them there.”

At Grosse Pointe Public Schools, the decision to close school came around 5 a.m. Monday. The night before, the district posted on its Facebook page that it would be open on Monday but that a final decision would be made by 6 a.m. Monday.

Grosse Pointe Public School System superintendent Gary Niehaus said on Monday there is no hard and fast rule as to when to close schools for cold or snowy weather.

“The ultimate goal is to keep kids safe and keep them in school,” he said.

And Niehaus noted there are more demands on him from parents and the community to make a quicker decision.

“There is no doubt that social media plays a piece in this,” he said. “… I tend to like to wait until the next morning. Traditionally (the district) has stayed open under all conditions. When you are the one staying opening, there is a different pressure.”

Niehaus said he had planned to stay open when he went to bed Sunday, but “I didn’t want to be the only one in the neighborhood that stayed open” on Monday, so the district closed.

GPPSS parent Amy Weglarz said she was glad school was canceled just in case the weather ended up being severe, but she posted on Facebook: “.. .but don’t botch it by saying you’re going to be open less than 12 hrs earlier. That was a very bad decision, please learn from it.”

Weglarz said she attended the district as a child and recalls “six snow days in 13 years of schools.”

As a parent of a 16-year-old and 7-year-old, she likes knowing the decision the night before and did not like the district waffling on the closure.

“We received an email from the community outreach person at 9:45 p.m. saying unless weather changes, they will be open. That’s great. However, don’t give us false hope,” she said.

Weglarz was allowed to go to work after her teen son stayed home and watched his sister.

“Yeah, I would be scrambling otherwise with child care. I would have had to have people to call,” she said. “But that is the plan you have to make as parents. I see parents complaining, and I am a little befuddled as to why there is no backup plan.”

In some cases, students were upset about not going to school on Monday.

Parent Shari Bills said the snow day at Berkley Public Schools was not a problem for her because her employer, a preschool, also canceled school for the day.

But it was her 14-year-old high school freshman daughter who was most upset Sunday night when the district called off school around 9:30 p.m.

“My daughter is very upset. She wants to take her finals and get it over with and get second semester started,” Bills said on Monday.

The last final exam was moved to Tuesday, according to high school’s social media post.

Bills of Oak Park said it’s always better for parents to know the night before a school closure, but she was “shocked” when the district called off school Sunday.

“I almost felt like: How did they know it was going to be that bad?” Bills said.

Already on Monday, Matthews of Novi is facing the task of deciding whether Monday’s snowfall can be cleared to allow parents, students and staff to get to school safely on Tuesday.

And with temperatures forecast to drop dangerously low on Wednesday and Thursday, Matthews must face whether to close school later in the week as well.

“Wednesday and Thursday may have a wind chill below 25,”  Matthews said. “This week is a nightmare weather week for superintendents.”

The state allows six weather days for school to be closed within the 180 days of instruction, Matthews said. So in the event school is closed more days this week, Matthews said he would seek a waiver from the state or be forced to add additional days of school later in the calendar.

“Then the pressure on the superintendent becomes: ‘We are close to being out of days … should I have school?'” he said.