After earlier forecasts predicted more snow, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Monday morning that Massachusetts’ largest district was canceled Tuesday. However, neighboring Newton’s Mayor Ruthanne Fuller — already needing to make up over two weeks lost to its teachers strike — waited until Tuesday morning before announcing school would be in session. But how are the decisions made?
Wu said Tuesday that city officials erred on the side of caution in canceling school for the day, even though the expected morning snowfall failed to materialize in Boston.
Speaking during her regular radio appearance on GBH, Wu said weather models “had really converged about 24 hours before on a pretty significant snow event right during the morning commute, and it dissipated over the rest of the day.”
The mayor said city officials wanted to “give families as much notice as possible to make their plans.”
District spokesman Max Baker said the district didn’t want to wait until Monday evening to cancel school, leaving families less time to find childcare.
Wu noted the city hasn’t had a significant snowstorm in more than two years and said the predictability of the weather is also changing.
“It’s becoming very difficult to estimate how those storms are going to behave,” she said, adding that preparation is paramount.
”I will take being overprepared than underprepared every single time,” Wu said. “But it does come with a lot of disruption and inconvenience for families, and people trying to get to their jobs. So it’s really unfortunate, but we are glad to be safe rather than sorry.”
Wu said city officials looked particularly at how fast snow was projected to fall, because if comes down fast, plows can’t keep up, making it more dangerous to drive — especially during rush hour.
“It’s basically a calculation of, ‘How likely are we able to keep the roads clear as it’s coming down?’” Wu said.
Another consideration in Boston: two-thirds of students walk or take the T to school, so the city has to consider the conditions of not just roads but also sidewalks and train tracks.
In New Bedford Public Schools, meanwhile, Superintendent Andrew O’Leary said he spent much of Monday monitoring the National Weather Service forecast and deliberating with fellow superintendents in a text chain. He spoke to city officials, but ultimately the call was his. O’Leary said it was important to have all the nearby schools on the same page, including the local regional Vocational School, charter schools, and neighboring districts like Fairhaven.
”It ensures people aren’t hearing about their cousin’s school and getting mixed messages,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we were calling it collectively.”
It was Monday afternoon, as the forecast for heavy snow shifted south toward New Bedford, that O’Leary and his peers decided to cancel school. (New Bedford did end up getting substantial snow Tuesday.)
”It’s all about accumulation,” O’Leary said. “Is it a safety issue?”
But it’s not an easy call. On the other side of the ledger, school leaders have to consider the mandatory 180 days of school. Snow days have to be made up, usually at the end of the school year in June. State officials don’t count remote learning days, much as school leaders might encourage students to keep learning on their day off. And half-days, which count toward the 180 day requirement but might allow districts to avoid the brunt of a storm, isn’t as appealing as it used to be: something like half of students don’t show up for half-days anymore, O’Leary said.
O’Leary said he also has to consider his students’ other needs — many of New Bedford’s kids depend on free meals at school, for example. Calling a snow day also requires parents to sort out child care.
”We don’t cancel lightly in terms of ensuring students have what they need,” the superintendent said.
The factors weigh slightly differently, he added, in a year like this when there has been very little snow. Outside of Newton, Massachusetts superintendents aren’t very worried this year about running out of snow make-up days in June (the state requires them to schedule five). In a year where those were already used up, more districts might have gritted their teeth and gone ahead with school.
O’Leary said he coordinated with the city’s emergency management team and public infrastructure department. And he heard arguments for a snow day from a couple of students at the high school — his kids.
”Their peers were badgering them, ‘Hey, talk to your dad,’” O’Leary said with a chuckle.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.