Snow days: Tahoe-Truckee schools face challenges when making the call
December 28, 2015
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Every time a winter storm rolls into the North Tahoe-Truckee region, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Rob Leri faces a challenging decision that must be made in the wee hours of the morning.
Should it be a snow day?
The decision is made after consulting with TTUSD Transportation Director Nanette Rondeau, and it may have a tremendous impact on thousands of students and their parents.
Whichever way it goes, there often is second guessing by many parents who scramble to find a Plan B for the day, or who may get stuck driving long distances to school to pick up their kids during a storm.
When a snow day is declared, local resident and self-employed photographer Nina Miller says, "I don't know how people who have a regular full time job do it. If I'm not too busy, I can take Levi skiing, but if I have an important meeting or photo shoot, I have to find someone to take him at the last minute."
'A VERY INTENSE EVALUATION'
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More than 3,100 children ride the school bus every day during the 2015-16 school year, according to the district, which boasts an enrollment of roughly 4,000 students (as of 2014-15).
Staff comes to work from as far away as Reno. Leri and Rondeau understand the gravity of the decision and review as much information as they can before making the call.
"It is a very intense evaluation that starts the day before," says Rondeau.
Rondeau conferences frequently with National Weather Service offices in Sacramento and Reno (which are staffed 24/7) right up until decision time.
They look at both the immediate forecast and 24 to 48 hours out. They consider predicted snow amounts, winds and expected snow level elevation, as well as the water content of the snow.
Wet snow is better, as light powder and wind can combine to produce white out conditions. Rondeau says the NWS forecasting team in Reno now provides her with a forecast specifically focused in on the school district.
Rondeau monitors road conditions on Interstate 80 and on state highways 28, 89 and 267. In addition, since some smaller buses have to go off the main highways and into the neighborhoods, the condition of roads maintained by Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties is also important.
Rondeau gets frequent updates from Caltrans, the Placer and Nevada county road departments, and the California Highway Patrol.
The district also relies on traffic cameras, along with a few brave weather watchers who get out of bed in the middle of the night to provide an on-the-ground report.
'IT'S NEVER A QUICK CALL'
At 3 a.m., Rondeau and Leri conference to make the decision.
"We talk about 45 minutes going over the data. It can be a very difficult decision," Rondeau said. "We don't make it lightly. It causes a lot of stress in Dr. Leri's life. He takes it very seriously. It's never a quick call."
The toughest part of the decision-making process, and why sometimes kids are skiing on bluebird snow days or going to school when it is dumping snow, is that the call has to be made so early in the morning.
Since some school bus drivers and staff have to leave home as early as 4:30 am, the final "go" or "no-go" call must be made by 4 a.m. — several hours before any students begin to arrive at school, and a full 12 hours before some kids are heading home from school.
Kimberly Smith, of Kings Beach, works as a hair stylist. She said she usually has to bring her child to work when it is a snow day.
"It was really difficult having to bring Gabe to work with me when he was smaller," she said.
This year, TTUSD has begun sending emails a day in advance to parents if they anticipate it might be a snow day.
Rondeau says the email also goes out to after-school programs so they can prepare and potentially add staff.
While some parents applaud this approach, Smith said it, "makes us think of scenarios that might not exist," adding another level of stress.
'STUDENT AND STAFF SAFETY'
Another factor TTUSD officials must battle is that the district encompasses 720 square miles, making it one of the largest school districts in the state, geographically.
Different sections of the district can be snowy or sunny at the same time, and snow amounts can vary tremendously.
TTUSD policy is that with all of the support services (transportation, food services, etc.) interconnected, and many students and staff living in one portion of the school district and attending school in another, it's not practical to close just some schools — except for the small and remote Donner Trail Elementary on top of Donner Summit.
Still, while many parents understand it is a tough decision, a snow day really throws life into a tailspin.
Shana Behan, of Kings Beach, works as a snow removal operator, and her husband is a ski patroller. When it snows, they go to work.
"We are frantically calling around to find friends who can take a bunch of kids from the neighborhood; we are all in the same boat," she said.
Usually, they find one brave individual who takes on a passel of kids so other parents can work.
"The last time I got the snow day call, I was already at work," she added.
The good news is that snow days are a fairly rare occurrence, and the one that occurred at TTUSD schools in early December was the first in several years.
Three snow days are built into each school year calendar. If there are more than three, those days are added onto the school year calendar in the spring.
"Our first and foremost concern and priority is student and staff safety," Leri said. "It may not be obvious when looking out the window why a snow day was called, but we take into consideration the road conditions for safe travel to and from school."
Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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