Fog makes weather decisions unclear for Eastern Iowa school administrators

“There’s just a lot of responsibility around that safety and in some ways you can never do the right thing”

Published: December 5 2013 | 6:36 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:32 am in

Mother Nature gave a winter gift to area students on Wednesday, when local superintendents decided to shorten or cancel the school day due to bad weather.

“The superintendent is the one that makes the final decision on that,” said Pat Hocking, superintendent of the Lisbon Community School District, who delayed class for two hours on Wednesday due to the weather. “There’s probably not a superintendent in the state who makes that decision without the input of others.”

Hocking consulted the district’s transportation director, checked the news to see how other administrators were reacting, called neighboring Mount Vernon Community School District Superintendent Gary O’Malley and even took a drive to view the visibility issues firsthand.

The morning’s thick coat of fog not only reduced visibility, creating potential driving hazards, but left at least one area administrator in a gray area when it came to determining how the school day should proceed.

“Fog can be different than anything else,” said Mary Jo Hainstock, superintendent of the Vinton-Shellsburg Community School District, who also opted for a two-hour late start on Wednesday. “The hardest one to predict is fog, because it changes so much from 4:30 in the morning to 7:30 in the morning. It can get better. It can get worse. It’s seldom the same.”

Hainstock had to make one decision for a district that spans 235 square miles.

“There’s just a lot of responsibility around that safety and in some ways you can never do the right thing,” she said, though she noted that she didn’t receive any negative staff or community feedback about Wednesday’s late start. “There’s always people who say you should’ve gone or you shouldn’t have gone.”

Hainstock talked to her district’s transportation director as well as Gary Zittergruen, superintendent of the neighboring Benton Community School District, who chose to cancel classes for his district’s students.

“You really try to always think about what are the conditions in your own district and the safety of your own kids and staff,” she said. “Sometimes it is difficult to make a decision that’s different than what everyone else makes.”

These decisions may become more complicated in the future as administrators react to the option to measure the school year in 1,080 instructional hours or 108 days. Current law states that a full instructional day is 5.5 hours in length, but the rule takes the preceding five days into account.

That means that the Cedar Rapids Community School District, which had a two-hour delay on Wednesday and an early release for professional development, does not have to make up for the lost learning time that resulted in some students only being in class for fewer than three hours.

“We’re going to be looking closely at what the legislature does on some cleanup language that we need some clarification on,” said Cedar Rapids Superintendent Dave Benson about how the district will measure the 2014-15 school year. “That will help determine what we do. We just don’t know yet.”

All three superintendents stressed that student and staff safety is the main concern with weather-related decisions.

"It’s probably one of the most difficult things we do is make weather calls," said Hocking. "You err on the side of safety when it comes to those types of situations."

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