Rhode Island · School Talk

The Ghost of Donny Evans Still Haunts RI Decision Makers and Students Lose Out

(This piece was updated at 10:16 am to add Pawtucket as a district that also has school today. I missed them when I first published. My apologies.)

Every single district in Rhode Island, with two exceptions, announced yesterday afternoon or last night that school would be cancelled today and many of us can’t, for the life of us, understand why. Parents and (some) teachers are fuming while kids are elated, though waking up and laughing with the knowledge that snow isn’t supposed to fall til after they would have already been dismissed from school.

Ten years ago the capital city of Rhode Island was home to what became known locally as the December Debacle. School officials in Providence did not cancel school and city and state officials were caught flat footed—and incompetent—when busses ended up stuck in the snow with elementary children still on them as late as 11 pm with parents of those children were unable to confirm their whereabouts. Needless to say, heads rolled.

From the Providence Journal on the 10th anniversary of the storm:

Ten years ago, a rush-hour snowstorm left 100 Providence students stranded on buses for hours, brought traffic downtown to a standstill and ultimately led to the resignation of the city school superintendent, the firing of the city’s emergency management director and a complete overhaul of emergency communications.

While it is most people’s understanding that superintendents make the call of whether to cancel, release early, delay, or operate normally, Tim Ryan who heads the Association of School Superintendents, says that much of that autonomy disappeared after that December Debacle. According to what he told the Providence Journal this past December, the Governor’s office plays a central role in what he calls “statewide planning” around weather events, even when it comes to schools.

“People don’t have the level of autonomy they used to,” he said. “The decision is almost made for you.”

There are a few problems with this whole snow day decision making process. First of all, forecasts vary greatly despite the small size of our state. One town may get over a foot of snow when another community only gets an inch or two. Secondly, it creates a dangerous—and lazy—groupthink mentality among Superintendents. One school committee member told me that superintendents remember the firing of Donny Evans from ten years ago and they know that they are less likely to be fired for cancelling than for not cancelling. I don’t know if I agree with that sentiment though I am convinced that what happened in Providence ten years ago does weigh on the minds of decision-makers, still to this day. And while it’s human nature to try to avoid being fired, school leaders obviously need to make decisions based on what’s best for students and not on what’s best for their job security. My sense is that what really drives their decisions is pressure, felt out of the governor’s office and from their fellow superintendents.

The Governor’s office had a call yesterday with the National Weather Service and was told, unequivocally, that all weather guidance indicates that heavy snow won’t begin til [4:00] at the earliest and that the bulk of snowfall occurs Wednesday night. So why on earth did she decide yesterday afternoon to close all state offices today, which inevitably lead to a cascade of school and university cancellations?

 

Call me cynical but I know we are in an election year and I have to wonder if we are so afraid of bad headlines that we shut the whole state down and inconvenience thousands of families despite there being not even a flake of snow falling? I rarely—almost never—second guess these snow day calls because the forecast usually makes their decisions defensible, if not clearly spot on. But today is deserving of loud criticism, especially since the call was made way too early and we will likely be stuck in our houses tomorrow—many without power— because of actual snow.

In a press conference this morning, Governor Raimondo specifically harkened back to the storm of 2007 and says that she has “closed state government in an abundance of caution.” She is standing firm in that decision as well as the school closures In fact, regarding school closures, she said “it was the right thing to do.” She also said, “maybe it’s the mom in me” as a potential explanation for her decision.

We don’t want our kids stuck on school buses. That’s a dangerous situation. -Gina Raimondo, RI Governor

I’m sorry, what? Plenty of moms want their kids in schools today. Plenty of moms don’t believe that every time it snows we should be exposing our literal inability to differentiate between a storm ten years ago and what is actually happening in real time. Plenty of moms in Rhode Island and Massachusetts also, to quote the Governor again, “don’t want our children stuck on school buses” but we don’t think closing school is necessary to avoid that awful scenario.

Massachusetts is five minutes from my house. I can only find one town—Seekonk—that cancelled school today. But our entire state, with two exceptions, has no school. Perhaps it’s a good time to note that Massachusetts is also ranked #1 nationally for education. Rhode Island comes in at #31. Both states spend about the same on education.

When it comes to decisions about school closures, it is often a no win situation for those making the decisions (or the ones we think are making the decisions.) People turn into know-it-all Monday morning quarterbacks and most people, rightly, tune them out. But today is different. We should have a conversation about how and why the decision to cancel school today was made so early and, ultimately state wide, with only two exceptions. Blackstone Valley Prep and Pawtucket Public Schools.

 

My own 7th grader would have been dismissed today at [1:35] because Wednesdays are early dismissal days every week. Instead, he is in the basement playing Fortnite and gearing up to do some work around the house for me—because I’m channelling my snow day rant by putting my son to work! Every school in our town of Cumberland has early release on Wednesdays and yet, for some unknown reason, more than 4,000 students are sitting home today in just my district alone.

My younger boys happen to attend Blackstone Valley Prep, the only school other than the district of Pawtucket, that is open today. Both have early dismissals. That makes much more sense to me when I look through my lens as a former school committee member and as a mom. My boys will both be out by [12:30] and home during the hours that are forecasted to be “dangerous.”

If suddenly the forecast changes and we have snow falling at a crazy rate early in the afternoon, I’ll gladly admit I have egg on my face. And that I was wrong. And that the Governor and the Superintendents were right. But if not, the egg is on the faces of those who seem to worry more about their jobs, their elections, and the headlines than they do about keeping our kids in school.

Note: If you are looking for a more lighthearted mom rant about snow days, you may enjoy the piece below. It’s sure to get a laugh out of you on a day that all you want to do is stomp your feet and swear. 

Snow Day! Who Cares if the Bread is Moldy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think?

More Comments