Dept. of Amplification & Correction: School closures

Several readers have questioned, taken issue with, and even canceled subscriptions (!) over my criticism of overly cautious school closures, particularly my suggestion that union sympathies may play a role in unwarranted snow days.

Since when are school administrators (who make decisions about snow days) part of the teachers’ union? [TB]

Snow days are decided upon by the School Board. The teachers and their union have nothing to do with it. Teachers have to show up on snow days to babysit any kids dropped off by parents. The fact that you are so silly as to blame Unions—good heavens how silly!—I have now figured you out: Another Conservative who will blame the victims for all the country’s ills. [AMcG]

At least in HRSB, the school officials who make the call are school board Superintendents – not unionized, but management. [AB]

Another possible explanation is the requirement to please big, risk-averse insurance companies. [BW]

OK, so now I’ve done what I should have done before posting, checked with Peter McLaughlin, my ex-Daily News colleague who now speaks for the Nova Scotia Department of Education. Turns out the situation is at once more complicated than I suggested, and less clearcut than my interlocutors believe. Full explanation after the jump.

Who is in the union? The Education Act defines a teacher as a person who holds a N.S. teaching certificate and is employed in teaching, supervisory or other professional capacity relating to education. Directors, curriculum supervisors, and even assistant superintendents who are employed as teachers are covered under article 44 of the Teachers’ Provincial Agreement and are members of the NSTU.

What about superintendents? McLaughlin explains:

The question about Superintendents is a little tricky. They are technically excluded under of the Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Act (TCBA) as members of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union; however they are entitled to all the benefits negotiated by the Union for teachers under the TCBA.

Who makes the storm day call? For most boards, it’s the superintendent or her delegate, on advice from the board’s transportation staff, Transportation Department dispatchers, Environment Canada, and even private weather analysts. Carol Olson, superintendent of the Halifax Regional School Board, explains the process in an (extremely slow-loading) video on the board website. Money quote:

The decision is never easy, but let me assure you, it’s always made with the safety of students and staff in mind.

The fact that senior managers in the school system are either unionized, or sorta-kinda unionized, is absurd and ought to be changed by the first government with the gumption to take on the teachers’ union. But I regret raising this issue here because it diverts attention from my central point: the increasing tendency for boards to cancel school at the first rumor of a snowflake.

Ms. Olson’s comment goes to the heart of the issue. Risks to student and staff safety are factors to be managed, but we should not imagine that we can manage them down to zero. We live in Nova Scotia where winter driving conditions are a fact of life. The additional risk of driving in bad weather must be balanced against other considerations. The only way to achieve absolutely certainty that no child is ever injured on the way to or from school is to do away with schools.

My beef is that these decisions have been getting more and more cautious in recent years. The Cape Breton Regional School Board’s cancellation of classes last Tuesday, a day on which there was no snow, no ice, and no wind, was an egregious example.

School boards in Nova Scotia cover vast territories with widely varying weather on any given day. When weather is unfit for travel in one corner of a district, it may be fine elsewhere, but boards tend to cancel classes throughout their territory. This suggests practice based more on the convenience of board staff rather than the students they serve.

School boards frequently keep schools open, but halt bus service on gravel roads. This creates two categories of students: one that gets a full year of instruction; another that gets shorted. It also means some parents will drive kids to school, and parental vehicles are less safe than school buses. So the result may be reduced safety.

The Environment Canada Weather Service’s post-Juan habit of continual wolf-crying, buttressed by a litany of scary sounding warnings, advisories, special statements, etc., none of which are ever explained to the public, makes the board’s task more difficult. A board attempting to exercise common sense will sometimes have to disregard the silly hype that has become standard in Canada’s official weather forecasts, and that’s hard for any bureaucrat charged with responsibility for child safety to do.

I hear people say they have begun to tune out Environment Canada (and CBC) weather forecasts, because it’s so hard to sort real warnings from exaggeration. Ironically, in their effort to be extra safety conscious, both organizations have increased the danger to the public, not lessened it.