Schools scramble on 'wind chill days': How do they make the call?

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Bitter cold is back in the forecast for Monday, but school officials have not leapt to cancel school, FOX 9 reports.

At least not yet.

There's a lot at stake with these decisions. Parents face last-minute scrambles to make child care arrangements. Teachers and families have to rework busy schedules. Depending on contracts, some support staff – secretaries, bus drivers, custodians – don't get paid when school is canceled.

And district officials across the state are now mulling whether they might have to add more school days in June, the Star Tribune reports.

The state requires a certain amount of instruction hours for students each year, which roughly amounts to 170 days in most districts, the Star Tribune reports. So most districts build a few bad-weather makeup days into the calendar. Stillwater schools on Thursday were among the districts that hit their limit – any more canceled days have to be made up at the end of the year, the Star Tribune reports.

Even in districts with more "extra days," leaders and teachers are wincing at the idea of canceling another day. They carefully map out academic calendars, and they say precious learning time is lost for each canceled day.

There have already been three days of canceled schools in most of the metro this month – and Monday has an expected low of minus 20 in the metro, and even colder in the north. Then there's usually-frigid February, followed by March – which in some years has been the snowiest month in Minnesota.

School officials know that no matter what they decide in advance of a bad-weather day, some parents will be irked.

"Some people sit back and say, 'It's only 30 below, it's Minnesota; we've got to do our business,'" Superintendent Sherri Broderius in the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district told MPR News. She canceled school one day this week due to a blizzard, then called for a two-hour delay due to wind chill the next day.

How do district officials make the call?

In the end, district leaders have to think about the safety of thousands of students trying to make their way to school, some walking or standing at bus stops.

"Once it gets to a certain wind chill and air temperature chill, the children are in physical danger," St. Paul schools spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown told MPR. "It's just too dangerous to put it to chance for a young child."

FOX 9 reports that when dangerous weather looms, Minnesota district superintendents focus on questions that include:

– What are the chances of frostbite?
– Are roads too icy?
– Will school buses run reliably?

WCCO spent some time with Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson, who in 12 years had not canceled school due to cold – until this school year.

He told WCCO that he and other district leaders pore over detailed weather forecasts and National Weather Service charts together, carefully consider how the district's diesel buses will perform, and nervously eye what the wind chill will be for students.

“I think we kind of look at around 40 below,” he told WCCO.

Typically, he'll wait until about 12 hours before school starts to get the surest forecast, he said.

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