By John Dodge
CHICAGO (CBS) — The phone rang at the office on Wednesday.
“Dad, where are the snow pants?”
The children were home from school, and of course they were going outside to make ice cream out of the snow and use the playground slide as a sledding hill.
A mother came home from work that afternoon and witnessed the neighborhood boys engaged in a competitive game of football, perhaps re-enacting the legendary Ice Bowl of the 1960s between Green Bay and Dallas.
The temperature was in the single digits and just about every school in Chicago was closed, all for the safety of the children.
The actual temperature was 5 degrees, but there was the wind chill to contend with as well.
Most schools are closed again on Thursday, and it was actually below zero. Officially, it was minus 8 at O’Hare, but colder elsewhere.
Yet, the roads were clear, with just a few inches of snow on the ground. It appears that the new normal is to shut down the system out of “an abundance of caution.”
The fact is that kids need to be in school learning, even when it’s cold outside.
Rather than school districts reacting in a knee jerk fashion, shouldn’t administrators figure out a better way to get kids to school in the cold? Build shelters for buses? Adjust bus routes so that kids don’t have to walk too far? Urge parents to drive their kids to school before work and arrange to keep them after school for a few hours, if needed? Ask parents to arrange after school play dates for families who can’t get home in mid-afternoon?
It’s been really cold in January for years in Chicago. This should have been figured out by now.
Monitoring the school closing lists over the past few days yielded a familiar pattern. Schools played a waiting game, and just as soon as one or two larger districts announced they would close, the others quickly followed.
Supt. Ray Lechner, in refreshing honesty, said he made a mistake by closing schools in Wilmette and acknowledged the Pied Piper effect.
“I really wish we had kept school open today [Wednesday], he said in an e-mail to families. “Hindsight is always 20-20! The domino effect of “district after district” deciding to close really had an impact. This is truly a “no-win” for all of us.”
Schools there are open on Thursday.
Even the Chicago Public Schools, which went decades without ever closing, are joining the trend. Chicago schools have been officially closed the past two days, but kids who could make it, were allowed inside.
Are districts fearful of litigation in the event a child gets frostbite or hypothermia?
Legal history would suggest otherwise, a prominent personal injury lawyer says.
“There is little precedent for holding schools liable for harms occurring off campus such as might occur while waiting for a school bus in below zero temps,” said Kenneth J. Allen of the Ken Allen Law Group.
The fact that school administrations might be concerned about liability is a good thing, he said.
“Negligence law simply requires reasonable conduct toward others, and it certainly seems unreasonable for schools to expose students to extreme cold weather.
“That schools choose to close in extreme weather rather than risk legal liability for harm to students exposed to cold is a good thing. It means negligence law is fulfilling its purpose.”
According to the National Weather Service, Chicago typically sees about a dozen days each winter in which the temperature drops below zero at some point, which includes overnight when, obviously, kids aren’t in class.
Since the service started keeping records in the 1870s, there have been only eight years in which the area has not had a winter day below zero. In each of those years, the lowest temperature was as cold or a bit colder than Wednesday.
Then, consider January 1977 when there were 17 days that month with below-zero temperatures.
So, by the new standard, and based on historical data, children will be missing at least one or two days and as many as three weeks of school (or more) in a given year.
The forecast for Friday is similar to Wednesday, along with some snow–about 1 to 3 inches. Are we looking at a third-straight day of school closings?
Of course, the students will make up any required days at the end of the school year. Illinois schools build into their schedules five possible emergency closing days. That means they schedule 185 class days when only 180 are required. There also are opportunities for them to appeal to the Illinois Board of Education not to have to make up the extra days.
However, the cancellations are tremendously disruptive, for the teachers and students in class, as well as students involved in extracurricular activities in terms of missed practices, rehearsals and meetings.
If one thinks this is just a plea to help frazzled moms and dads, it’s not.
Yes, it is a huge hassle to find child care or come up with ways to entertain the children at home.
That is far from the most difficult tasks parents will face in their lives.