The costs and benefits of school closings

Making the decision to close schools for bad weather, as many regions in the US did last Tuesday due to the bitterly cold freeze, is not easy. The prime considerations of course are the temperature and snow and ice levels. As to the first, it is not the predicted daytime high temperature that should be used as a gauge, since that is usually reached only by the mid afternoon when students and workers are returning home in daylight and people have had time to do some clean up, but the low temperatures of the previous night, since that is closer to the temperature in the early morning when children are headed off to school. Last Tuesday, that temperature in Cleveland was -8oF (–22oC), which is pretty cold.

But school closings in winter are not just about the weather. There are also class issues involved. Unfortunately, those school districts in poor areas are the ones that are less likely to have the means to promptly clean the streets of snow or to have an extensive school bus system, thus requiring large numbers of children to have to walk fairly long distances to school in very bad weather on uncleared streets. Such students are also less likely to be able to afford the high quality gloves, jackets, hats, and boots that enable better-off people to deal with the weather. They are also less likely to have parents who can drop them off at school by car.

But while such districts may be more tempted to close schools, it is also true that their parents are also the ones who are most inconvenienced by school closings. In wealthier districts, one parent may be at home or, as in my case, our jobs may be such that one of us can take the day off fairly easily or work at home, so having school close suddenly is not a major hardship. When my two children were little, if I did have to go in to teach a class, I would take them to work with me and they would read and play around in my office. Then when I went to teach, they would come with me and sit in the front row and read their books while I taught.

I recall one occasion when I was writing on the blackboard and heard muffled laughter from the students. Since there was nothing obviously funny about the physics I was teaching, I looked around to see what the cause of the amusement was and noticed that my younger daughter, who was around six years at the time, had her hand raised, with my nine-year old daughter whispering something furiously to her.

When I asked my younger daughter what her question was, she said that she had dropped her crayon and wanted to know if it was ok to get down from her seat and pick it up. I said yes and went back to teaching, with the class erupting in laughter. After the class, my older daughter said exasperatedly that she had been trying to tell her sister that she should just pick up the crayon and not interrupt me, but my younger daughter had been adamant. She had seen that all the other students raised their hands when they wanted my attention and she had not wanted to break with protocol.

I am digressing somewhat but my point is the people like me have many options when schools are closed suddenly so it is at most a minor inconvenience. No so with families who are not so well off. They have to show up for work at a fixed time or risk having their pay docked or even losing their jobs. So the very school districts where it is better for the children to have schools closed are those where it is much worse for the parents. Conversely, in the better-off districts it is not so imperative to close schools even though it is less of a hardship for families if they do.

Matters of class often deliver double-whammies of this kind.


  1. says

    Here’s an idea that probably wouldn’t be well received in the US, but I’ll say it anyway.

    When hurricanes hit here in Taiwan and the government orders school closures, the schools make up that day by coming in on a Saturday a week or two later. And since most businesses close during said typhoons, most of the parents are at home to take care of the kids. (It also helps that the Taiwanese and other Asian countries are big on close families, multiple generations and relations living together or in the same city, making child care easier.)

    “One size fits all” fits hardly anyone, but it’s a suggestion.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Al Dente,

    At the time my children were young, our university president was a Norwegian who never, ever closed the university. Even nowadays it is still extremely rare for the university to close.

  3. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy says

    The problem isn’t mainly about losing the day of school: a lot of school systems build a few extra days into the schedule in case of hurricanes, blizzards, power outages, etc. Or they can take it out of a scheduled mid-winter break, or extend the school year by a couple of days. Having the schools open on Saturday or Sunday to make up for it instead might be a better approach to that problem, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of lower-class parents having to figure out childcare when the schools are closed. Sometimes the bus that would get you to work is running even if the school bus isn’t, or the parents might have usable coats because they don’t outgrow them as fast as a child would, or they might have to risk injury by going to work despite the cold, because the people who decide to close the schools aren’t the ones who decide whether to close other businesses. There’s a wide range between “Somerville schools will be closed tomorrow” and “the governor has declared a state of emergency, it is illegal to drive for the next twelve hours unless you are operating an emergency vehicle, or an emergency worker heading to your job.”

  4. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    A decade ago or so I was teaching math in an East Cleveland school. That system had another concern.

    The breakfast and lunch the school served was all too often the only real food a number of students got each day. If the school closed, the kids didn’t eat.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. Al Dente says

    One problem with Saturday or Sunday school is that hourly paid employees like school bus drivers and janitors would be eligible for overtime. Time and a half can be difficult for a school district on a tight budget.

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