Beyond inside-out PJs: An inside look at snow closing decisions

Peter Litchka, Ed.D, associate professor and director of educational leadership, on weather delays/closing and how superintendents make their decisions

By Stephanie Weaver

As snow is closing schools across the country, Loyola magazine asked Peter Litchka, Ed.D., a faculty member in Loyola’s School of Education and former New York school superintendent, to discuss the factors superintendent consider when making the decision to close.

You used to make snow closing decisions. When there’s a snow storm coming, do you still follow the weather closely?

Whenever there is a storm headed toward our area, I think of those who will need to decide whether to close schools. If you are a superintendent in southern Pennsylvania, it might be a total different story than if you are in central Maryland. But, trust me, I know superintendents are watching the radar throughout the night, staying in constant contact with their transportation directors, who are keeping them informed throughout the night.

Since I am a retired superintendent, I can go to bed now and not worry about conditions in the morning. However, I have a great amount of empathy for those superintendents who will be up throughout the night, trying to make the right decision for the right reasons.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/David J

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/David J

Who’s involved in discussions to close or delay for weather? Who ultimately makes the decision?

I was a superintendent in two different districts in New York. Unlike Maryland, which has larger county districts, New York has village, town, and city districts. There are almost 800 individual school districts throughout New York. Since most of these districts are rather small, those involved in the discussion are the superintendent, the person in charge of transportation, and other central office staff.

Of course, our people were constantly talking to their colleagues in other districts, as well as to the National Weather Service. There were many nights where our district’s decision makers would be out driving the road at 2 or 3 in the morning “to get a first-hand look” at the conditions. The ultimate responsibility, however, is with the superintendent—after receiving much information and recommendations from others. I can’t remember a time, or know of a superintendent, who would decide without such input.

What factors do you consider when making weather-related closing decisions? What’s most important?

The safety of students and staff are the most important factors. I would never be influenced by factors such as the number of snow days left, or whether or not there were standardized tests, athletic events, or school plays. I really didn’t want to hear about that, nor did I want those reporting to me to suggest this. Activities can be made up, and leadership should not risk the health and welfare of students and staff.

Once a decision is made, the next most important thing is to get the information out to everyone. Parents, bus drivers (who often have other jobs), school staff, and others need to know about the delay or closing as soon as possible to make other arrangements. Next, leadership contacts radio stations, television stations, and so on. When I was superintendent in the early 2000s, the idea of mass emails and texting was just coming into use.

What happens when you’re wrong? How do you deal with the criticism?

Well, being a superintendent requires a very thick skin. No matter what decision you make—particularly with closing schools for weather reasons—you will now upset many people. Some of the typical comments were:

“Why didn’t you close last night? What took you so long?”

“We are becoming a nation of weaklings… Back in the day, we never had snow days. We walked through storms all the time!”

“Since the schools are closed, do you still get paid? What about the teachers?”

“Our family has a vacation coming up this spring. Please don’t close anymore… We don’t want to have to make up days and lose out.”

Knowing that you were not going to make everyone happy actually made the decision-making process a little easier. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the critics, as long as I felt I had made the decision based on the facts and information that was available at the time.

One time, we were advised that a huge snowstorm was heading our way.  So I, after consultation, decided at 3 a.m. that we would close schools. Everything was put into motion and schools were in fact closed. At about 5 a.m. the storm, for some reason, took a northerly route and missed us completely. We had no snow at all. The telephones were lit up all day, and the emails kept rolling in. I still remember that day, because, at about 2 in the afternoon, we got some flurries—but that was it! Not matter what, you make the best decision you can with the information you have… but sometimes, you guess wrong.

Do the decisions of neighboring jurisdictions impact your decision?

Yes, they have an impact on the decision-making process. Certainly districts that may be getting the brunt of the storm earlier are of great interest to us. But in the end, leadership has to make a decision that is in the best interest of the school district, students, and staff.

Logistically, what does it take to close early and send everyone home?

The easiest thing is to cancel school before everyone starts traveling to school—as long as they are given enough time. The most difficult thing, in my opinion, is the storm that hits after everyone has arrived. Parents need to be contacted, bus drivers need to be brought back, afterschool activities need to be cancelled, and so forth… and then there’s the issue of parents who are not able to pick up their child or go home early in the day. Because of this, many school personnel have to stay long hours after schools closed so students would be in a safe, warm place.

How has technology helped the process, if at all?

It certainly provides us with more and quicker information. Now you can go on your own computer and see a multitude of weather maps, projections, and data. And certainly technology allows the school district to provide information more quickly to students, staff, and families. But I don’t know if the accuracy is any better.


Litchka, along with two other former superintendents, recently published On the Horns of a Dilemma: Superintendents, Politics and Decision Making,focused on superintendents and decision-making. The book, which is based on research over the past 10 years, discusses the political issues and leadership involved in the decision-making processes and explores why some decisions require different strategies than others.

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