A rare snow day for Park City
February 1, 2008
With Park City averaging 143 inches of snowfall per year, the assumption would be that snow days are a common event for Park City School District. However, Wednesday’s school closing was only the fifth snow day in the past 16 years according to Superintendent Ray Timothy.
Director of Support Services Steve Oliver said that with the buses’ snow chains, big snow tires and powerful engines, "I think we can respond to storms pretty well." Timothy agreed that the district’s buses are some of the safest vehicles out there. "It’s really rare if we can’t transport our students," he said. "These buses handle the roads better than a lot of other vehicles."
But when Timothy, Oliver and Brent Chaston, Director of Transportation, woke up early Wednesday morning to assess the situation, they found this was a storm that even their reliable buses and experienced bus drivers shouldn’t be out in.
"It was a combination of the snow and whiteout conditions. We had snow blowing parallel to the ground," Timothy said. "Even when I was checking my street, I was in snow drifts up to my knees."
Chaston said when he went out to check the "hot spots," or areas where buses tend to have problems getting through, there was "near-zero visibility," and some of the roads were not accessible at all.
All three men work together to determine whether the schools would close. Timothy checked the forecast through satellite imaging and roadside cameras. He also patrolled his subdivision to see what conditions were like.
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Oliver contacted the district’s two snow removal crews. "They tell me what they’re seeing, and they said it was miserable out there," he said. Oliver recalled that one crew member said he plowed a lot at 4 a.m. and then had to plow it again because of the wind.
Besides checking certain routes personally to see what the roads were like, Chaston also had bus drivers throughout the district assess their surrounding areas and report back. He works with the police department to find out how the city and county plows are doing as well.
After Chaston gathered all his information, he reported back to Oliver with his recommendation. Chaston said children’s safety was the No. 1 thing he considered. "I have not seen it that way for years," he said. "The whole district was inundated with the storm."
Chaston has been working in this industry for 30 years, and so when he said to Oliver "If we’re ever going to cancel school, today would be the day," Oliver took that advice seriously.
Oliver relayed that message back to Timothy, and the decision to call a snow day was made final by 5:15 a.m.
Timothy said he was not only considering the safety of students, but teachers as well. "We have a lot of employees commuting from Salt Lake, Heber and other cities," he said.
After the decision, a phone tree began in order to alert all teachers of the closing before 6 a.m., and an announcement was made on KPCW radio and the district’s Web site.
This was the first time the district has posted an announcement of this nature on its Web site. The idea came from a parent who e-mailed Timothy after Monday’s snowstorm and gave some suggestions for other ways to get the word out.
One of the problems with having to call a snow day, Timothy said, is that now the district has to make up that day. "State law requires that we hold school 180 days," he said. "So, Wednesday will have to be made up later on in the year."
The district plans to make up that school day on Monday, Feb. 11, during the students’ break. Cost is another concern for the district because there are some employees that are contracted to be in school whether students are there or not, and then they must also be paid for the make-up day.
"It’s also an inconvenience for families," Timothy continued. "It diverts from their normal schedule of school and work."
Park City High School Principal Hilary Hayes said with so few snow days over the years, they’ve come to know what types of conditions will actually call school off. "We saw that it was a forgone conclusion the night before," she said.
Oliver said that while they’ve yet to hear criticism from anyone about the snow day, "there’s usually a small group of people that see things differently." He said last year he received complaints from parents asking, "What does it take to cancel school up here?"
Oliver said this closing was due to a cumulative effect of all the snow the city’s experienced within the past week. "A lot of things have conspired to make this happen," he said.