Last week was an unusual one for students of the public and Catholic school systems in Ponoka due to the extreme cold.
Students across the Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) system missed three (Feb. 4, 5 and 7) out of five days as schools were closed after all bus routes were cancelled on those days. Meanwhile, St. Augustine School remained open, but saw far fewer students attending since its rural students are transported to class by WCPS.
The situation raised the ire of some parents, curious as to why the public schools close while the Catholic school will still take in those students that show up.
WCPS superintendent Jayson Lovell explained that safety of students, parents, bus drivers and staff are paramount in why the schools are closed up when the division suspends its bus services.
“The practice of closing the schools to all students when buses don’t run reflects the rural nature of our district and ensuring student safety stays at the forefront. We transport approximately 40 per cent of our 7,200 students, so if we don’t run buses, we have a significant number of rural students not attending,” Lovell said.
“This results in teachers facing challenges in relation to moving forward with new content.”
The feeling, Lovell added, is that parents or high school students shouldn’t have to drive to get to school in conditions it won’t operate buses in. WCPS experienced a student fatality, on a bus driving in extreme fog, near Rimbey in 2008.
“We believe by closing the schools, we are putting safety first,” he stated.
“We also have been reminded of tragic accidents and loss of life in neighbouring school districts where, as recently as last year, a high school student was killed driving to their school on a day where road and weather conditions were poor, and in that district they leave the schools open.”
WCPS policy (AP 132) outlines the decision to cancel bus routes by school or division-wide is made by two people — the transportation manager and the superintendent (or designate) at any time before 6 a.m. that morning. Individual bus drivers, after consulting the transportation manager, can still cancel their individual route.
Aside from dangerous road conditions — such as heavy snowfall or fog, blowing snow or freezing rain — that may prompt bus cancellations, an air temperature of below minus 40 or a wind chill below that number will also trigger them.
The policy also adds, “The decision to cancel all bus runs for a full day of school automatically includes the closing of the affected school(s) for all students.”
However, there are exceptions where schools will remain open — such as where only a certain area has been affected by bus cancellations or when road conditions are expected to significantly improve within a short time. In these instances, notifications will be sent that morning about bus routes for the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the St. Thomas Aquinas Roman (STAR) Catholic School Division — which operates St. Augustine School, transports its rural students via WCPS buses. That means the school has no real control over when or if the buses run.
STAR’s inclement weather policy outlines that students are not to have outside recess if the air temperature or temperature combined with windchill is minus 20 or colder.
STAR assistant superintendent Sean McGuinness stated the division’s goal is to have its schools remain open in cold weather, since many of its students live close enough that they can get to school.
“It’s also an expectation of parents, when they drop their child off, that they can get into the school,” McGuinness said.
“That is fairly understandable and the problem with closing schools is that it is contrary to that expectation.”
Additionally, McGuiness noted school boards are autonomous and can make their own decisions regarding many different issues, so STAR has opted to have its schools open whenever possible.
Although, as stated in policy AP131, “The primary consideration in the event of severe weather conditions shall be the health and safety of students. The superintendent may suspend or curtail school bus service to any school or schools and/or close schools or cancel classes when weather conditions constitute a hazard to the safety of students.”
The policy goes on to further state factors to be considered when closing schools include — minus 40 temperature for the area in question, a wind chill of approximately minus 50, less than 30 metres visibility and road advisory reports.