Lee Pulaski, [email protected]
Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski
Students file outside of Olga Brener Intermediate School at the end of school Wednesday to wait for the bus or be picked up by parents. Schools were back in session Wednesday after two days of closing due to subzero temperatures combined with lower wind chills.
The polar vortex that gripped Wisconsin and half of the United States in its frigid grip this week impacted area schools as much as any other entity.
Schools were closed Monday and Tuesday after temperatures approached minus 20 degrees and wind chills went beyond minus 40 degrees at times. Tigerton and Wittenberg-Birnamwood school districts, along with Menominee Tribal School, made the decision Friday to cancel school for at least one day, followed by the Shawano and Menominee Indian districts on Saturday, and Bowler, Bonduel and Gresham on Sunday.
Schools plan extra days in their calendar for inclement weather, usually days where heavy snow has fallen and traveling on roads can be treacherous. The subzero temperatures this week took a huge chunk out of districts’ reserve days.
For Shawano School District, the reserve is depleted. District Administrator Gary Cumberland said Wednesday that the district only had two extra days built into its calendar, so he is uncertain what could happen to the district’s schedule if schools have to be closed again.
“I don’t have the answer on how we’re going to make it up,” Cumberland said. “Frankly, I was hoping we wouldn’t have to use two of them.”
In the past, some school districts have shortened spring break, cancelled teacher in-service days and, in extreme circumstances, extended the school year so the school year totals 180 school days as required by state law.
Cumberland noted that there have been occasions when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has set aside closures due to an “act of God.” He said he hopes a polar vortex qualifies.
Bonduel School District is in a slightly better situation, according to District Administrator Peter Behnke. The district scheduled four snow days into its calendar and used two this week.
Behnke said closing the schools Monday and Tuesday was a no-brainer, even without the wind chills, as the district has a past practice to close school if the temperature is expected to dip below minus 20.
“We don’t have a way to test wind speeds,” Behnke said. “We use the bus garage here in Bonduel (as a gauge) because we know the temperatures vary across the district.”
Behnke has usually closed school when there is heavy snow, and he recalls closing occasionally when road conditions were extremely icy. The last time Bonduel had to close because of subzero temperatures was January 2009, he said.
For Shawano, it has been considerably longer. Cumberland said records showed the last temperature related cancellation was in 1996.
Shawano’s policy is to delay school by an hour or more when the temperature reaches minus 20 and cancel if it is expected to approach minus 30. Cumberland said he felt he should err on the side of caution.
“I came to school one of the mornings, and it was minus 18, but the wind chills were nearly 50 degrees below zero,” he said. “(Wind chills) weren’t a big part of the equation, but it was too cold for kids to be out there.”
Bonduel bus drivers started the buses Tuesday to see how they would run, and there was a “gelling effect,” in some of them, Behnke said. He noted the temperature that day approached minus 20, but the temperature went below that around Navarino.
“Even this morning, we had trouble with the filters and gel collecting on some of them, which affects their performance,” Behnke said. “Fortunately, our mechanics did a good job getting everything cleaned up and going.”
Shawano’s contracted company, Grosskopf Bus, did not have as much difficulty starting buses during the freeze, but Cumberland noted Green Bay school administrators he contacted had a problem with their buses, which is why that district decided to close for a third day, even though temperatures crept above zero Wednesday.
“They had some problems yesterday getting their buses started,” Cumberland said. “That was a factor that went into their decision (to close Wednesday).”
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