The Lowell community, along with most of West Michigan and much of the state has been dealing with an unusual winter. Snow, dangerously low temperatures and wind chill, ice and loss of power has wondering if it will ever end. Schools and businesses have closed due to these conditions. We caught up with Lowell Area Schools (LAS) Superintendent Greg Pratt to discuss school closings as well as some follow-up to other things happening with the district.
Unusual Number of School Closings
Superintendent Pratt works with the transportation staff to monitor weather conditions. They, like the rest of the community, learn about road conditions, weather predictions, what’s currently happening, and what is anticipated from TV and internet. According to Pratt, state and county officials are communicated with when appropriate. Otherwise, the decision on whether or not to have a delay in opening or cancel school lies on Pratt and the transportation staff.
They have a process in place to make an informed decision as early as possible. “Our Director of Transportation and as many as three other staff members, test morning road conditions of our bus routes beginning at 4:00 a.m. throughout our 140 square mile district.” explains Pratt. “In addition, consideration is given to the time snow or ice starts, the amount, temperature and wind-chill, as well as the condition of the most hazardous bus routes in our district.” They also take into consideration student drivers and those who walk to school or wait for buses, as well as individuals who travel to take part in programs at the Kent Intermediate School District (KISD).
“I will consistently err on the side of safety; the alternative is not an option.” Pratt states. “I would ask parents to keep in mind that, even if it looks clear on your street, dangerous conditions may exist in other parts of our district.” There’s a good chance some people will be unhappy regardless of the decision which is made during any given weather event, but it’s part of the job nonetheless. And it’s a decision which is not taken lightly.
Will the End of the School Year Be Extended?
As of now, it seems that 13 is the lucky, or unlucky, number. LAS students should have completed 25 days of school since coming back from Christmas vacation. They’ve been in school 13 days and have had 12 days called off due to weather. Add that to one cancelled day in the fall due to snow and the district currently stands at a total of 13 weather related closings for the school year. With indications of Mother Nature not yet being done with West Michigan, regardless of what the groundhog said earlier this month, additional days off could be added before the end of the school year.
The State of Michigan allows for six days of cancellations before days off need to be made up. There is also an option to seek an additional three-day allowance from the state if a district exceeds this number. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency during the recent polar vortex which led to an entire week off from school in many local districts. However, it is unclear whether the State of Michigan will exonerate any days off taken during this time period. “We will continue to look for clarification from the State over the next few weeks.” says Pratt. Until more information is received and there’s a better idea if additional days off due to weather will be needed, it is unclear as to whether or not the school year will be required to be extended into June rather than ending on May 31 as currently scheduled.
Having five days off in a row – January 28 through February 1 – is the longest uninterrupted stretch of cancellations due to weather in the past decade. Those who are old enough remember the blizzard of ‘78 where excessive snow closed school for an extended period of time. This generation of kids will have a story of their own to tell!
Facility Improvements and Early School Start Waiver
The Board of Education has approved a vote of the people in May for a school bond. This past fall, the district sought input from those within the LAS footprint and provided their plans for projects across the district by hosting three community meetings. Information about the bond and projects will be sent to parents and the community in the next few weeks.
Renovations at the St. Mary’s School building will begin shortly. The intent is to move Curiosity Corner Preschool to the building once improvements are made. “We currently do not have a projected opening date, as we are early in the process. I do not believe that we will be able to open the building at the start of the [upcoming] school year.” Pratt updates.
Finally, Superintendent Pratt addressed the district’s first day of school occurring prior to Labor Day weekend. The 2019/20 school year will be the final year of the three-year waiver approval from the State of Michigan to begin school before the holiday. “With a new governor and state superintendent, there are some questions on what the waiver process may look like in the future.” says Pratt. LAS will work with KISD to ensure schools in the county remain on a similar schedule. The State of Michigan mandates Christmas and Spring break coincide throughout the intermediate school district. Pratt indicated that feedback on the early start has been more positive than not, especially after the one year adjustment took place. Should the bond in May pass, one project is to add air conditioning to buildings alleviating the prospect of cancelling school due to extreme heat.
Keep Up with Lowell Area Schools
There are numerous ways to keep up to date with what is happening within the district. Their Facebook page shares information about what’s happening at various schools and will notify when school is delayed or cancelled. Each individual school also has a Facebook page for more specific updates.
There is also the option of signing up for email and/or text updates from the district via MyCallNow. Text the word ALERT to 22300 to “opt-in” to receive texts after setting up an account. Users can select specific schools, the transportation department and the district as options for receiving notifications from a LAS staff member. During the polar vortex, WoodTV sent out a text message in error to subscribers indicating the district was closed. Only information directly from the district via Facebook, text, or email should be considered *official* notification.
It may have felt to some like January had at least 62 days in it with just the first week of February giving off the same feel. While the weather has made many even more eager for spring, it’s likely more winter will find its way to West Michigan (as soon as this week and next). A positive thing about days off from school, crazy weather, and loss of power is seeing examples of businesses, friends, neighbors, and even strangers helping others in the community.
Lowell’s First Look will continue to seek updates on the potential for adding days to the school year and how the State of Michigan and in turn LAS will handle the future of starting the school year before Labor Day.