The imminent winter season means early mornings and debated decisions for school superintendents across the country while students hope for a canceled day of classes.
As students sleep the final hours before waking up to head to school, officials are alert, decisive and often communicating with each other when swirling snowstorms or dangerous temperatures reign. This coming winter, certain areas of the United States are more susceptible to school delays and cancellations.
Those decisions are made with the safety of children and school employees in mind. For Trina Newton, the Geneva City School District superintendent, the goal is to make a decision and spread the information as quickly as possible.
The school district, located in Geneva, New York, roughly 45 miles from Rochester, canceled school three times last winter. Though typically thought of as snow days, Newton said they ended up canceling school due to cold air more than actual snowfall.
Newton explained that on two occasions the wind chill was projected to be far too harsh for the entire 24-hour duration, creating dangerous conditions for children to be outdoors before and after school.
In the grips of the polar vortex that spawned such frigid conditions last year, Geneva was not unique to canceling due to brutal cold.
Cold Will Not Be as Harsh, Long-Lasting as Last Winter
Widespread cancellations and delays were issued across the Midwest and Northeast last year due to hazardous temperatures. In early January of 2014, the entire state of Minnesota experienced conditions unfit for students to be outside in extreme cold and wind. The expansive cold prompted Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to cancel K-12 public schools statewide.
A similar phenomenon could occur this season in the Northeast and Midwest. The polar vortex, the culprit responsible for several days of below-zero temperatures last year, will slip down into the region from time to time, delivering blasts of arctic air to the Northeast.
According to AccuWeather.com Expert Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok, this year will not bring such persistent cold air. Still, delays and cancellations are possible as school officials maintain safe conditions for students to wait for buses and walk to and from school.
The Midwest will similarly not climb to such an extreme level of cold for the duration of the winter months. In fact, temperature wise, areas such as Duluth, Minnesota, could be 7-9 degrees F warmer than last year's three-month average.
Snow and Stormy Weather May Cause Issues for Tennessee Valley to Northeast
While some students might be hoping for winter skies cluttered with snowstorms, parents and school officials look for an uninterrupted season.
For some areas, however, that may not be in the case.
In the Northeast, Pastelok expects a big snow season with higher-than-normal snow totals for areas west of the I-95 corridor. The I-95 corridor and eastward could fall victim to changeover systems, which will provide a messy wintry mix at times. When ice and snow conditions mix, roadways can be even more dangerous.
Families in the Midwest may see milder conditions as some areas near Chicago and Minneapolis could fail to hit normal seasonal snow totals. With below-average snow expected, road conditions should be easier to maintain and allow students to get to schools safely and on time.
In the mid-Atlantic and Tennessee Valley, a stormy winter is expected and families may want to have a babysitter or alternative childcare plans prepared. Areas from eastern Texas all the way up to eastern Kentucky could be impacted by ice events this season. Expected to peak in January, icy conditions could prompt school delays and cancellations.
"Even as far south as the I-10 corridor across the Gulf Coast States should be on guard for a sneaky late January or early February storm," Pastelok said.
With some powerful storms, power lines and trees can crash down due to the weight of the crusted ice which makes some bus routes impassible.
Safety is First in Mind While Officials Make School Cancellation Decisions
Months before winter weather unfolds, officials are usually prepared when students are just doing their final back-to-school shopping and trying to memorize their locker codes.
With 26 years of experience in education, Newton keeps her district prepared. With salt supplies already stocked, she is ready for the first storm of the season. While each storm is different, she takes the same approach each time.
When snowstorms threaten safe driving conditions for staff and students, Newton explained that she will track the storms intensively and heed advice from the weather industry as well as local law enforcement to make the most informed decision possible.
Ultimately, she attempts to give parents and caretakers as much warning as possible about cancellations. Ideally, she makes the call in the evening, giving parents the opportunity to organize alternative childcare if necessary.
She then works with her staff to send out emails, Facebook updates and traditional phone calls throughout the district. If she does not have enough to make a decision the day before, Newton said she barely sleeps throughout the night while tracking storms and talking to other officials.
While the head bus driver is testing routes, she is confirming any known hazards with local police and discussing conditions around the area with other nearby superintendents.
With so many factors to deal with, she said she only wants to make the safest decision possible for everyone. Not every road or neighborhood is the same, but the safety of each child is equally important.
"You always have to keep in mind children's safety and what is in the best interest of the children," she said.