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Archive for the ‘Crisis Management’ Category

Major snow storms raise public anxieties and have given rise to a relatively new phenomenon known as “Snowpocalypse” or “Snowmageddon.” It’s now a widely-used term referring to the sensationalist reaction of popular news stations to the approach of a snow storm, coupling “snow” with the mythical doom and gloom of a 21st century “Armageddon.” Whether the public hype associated with such language feeds the ‘crowd psychology’ contributing to the closing of schools is a hot topic worthy of investigation.

SnowDayVancouverThe term “Snowcopalypse” was first used in media reports in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest to refer to a snowstorm in December of 2008. The Canadian press and social media began using the two terms interchangeably to describe a snowstorm in January of 2009. It popped up in a 2008 children’s book entitled Winter Blast and written by Chris Wright who used “snowmageddon” in the storyline of his book.  Today it is almost routinely used interchangeably with “snowmageddon” conjuring up fears before, during, and after a storm hits.

Twice during the month of February 2019 the popular press and social media lit up with sensational, over-the-top, and hilarious reports appropriating the terms and bearing scary news headlines such as Polar Vortex Storm and the hashtag #Snowmageddon2019 It came in two distinct waves with the arrival of a “Polar Vortex” (February 4-7, 2019) bringing frigid cold to large swaths of central Canada and the United States Mid-West and then a full-blown “Snowmageddon” from February 10 to 13 coming in a storm blast from the Pacific Coast to the the Atlantic provinces.

The peak of “Snowmageddon” hit the Maritimes on Wednesday February 13, 2019 and brought the whole region to a halt, closing every school in all three Maritime provinces. For three days leading up to the storm, regional news reports contained dire warnings of the coming snowstorm as it advanced from central Canada eastward into Quebec and the Maritimes. The region’s leading storm tracking and advisory network, known as the CBC News Storm Centre, pumped out regular reports by their staff meteorologists adding further to the hype surrounding the coming storm event.

Every school district in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island was on storm alert the day before the event — and all jurisdictions, like clockwork, announced full-system shutdowns. Initial forecasts of snowfalls ranging from 15 to 30 cm ( 6 to 12 inches) were enough to trigger school closure protocols and, as of 6 am on February 13, 2019, school was cancelled in three provinces, impacting some 733 schools, 18,000 teachers, and 235,000 students and families.

The three Maritime provinces have a well-deserved reputation for closing schools with great regularity during the winter months. The pronounced tendency of school authorities to declare “snow days” and shut down entire districts was well documented in two reports issued almost ten years ago, James Gunn’s School Storm Days in Nova Scotia (November 2009) and my own April 2010 AIMS report, School’s Out, Again.  Both studies were prompted by the high incidence of closures in Nova Scotia during 2008-09 when boards shuttered schools for a record number of days, averaging more than 8 days across the province.

Full days of school were being cancelled for anticipated storms, road conditions, and forecasts of freezing rain. Comparing Maritime school districts with comparable jurisdictions outside the region, it was revealed that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were all more inclined to close their schools during winter storms. In some cities, such as Calgary and Winnipeg, schools never close and, even in districts like the Quebec Eastern Townships, cancellations averaged fewer than three a year.

Whether school is cancelled depends, to a surprising degree, on where you happen to live in Canada. The most recent snowstorm, starting on February 10 in Vancouver and rolling across the country for three days, provided a stark reminder of how different the responses are to heavy snowfall and storm conditions.

Freak snow storms hitting Vancouver and the B.C. Lower Mainland are a total rarity and the one on February 10 dumped 10 cm of snow and 4.8 mm of rain, enough to cause mass panic, school closures on the South Coast, and massive traffic jams involving cars, mostly equipped with summer tires. In the Prairie West, the storm barely registered and schools everywhere operated as usual through every type of weather condition, including deep freezes of -30 degrees or lower Celsius. Hypothermia and frostbite are two conditions that do warrant special instructions for parents and children.

A big snow dump in Ontario and Quebec, hitting on February 12 and 13, forced education authorities to either close schools or suspend student busing and leaving student attendance up to “parent’s discretion.”  Canada’s biggest school system, the Toronto District School Board, closed its schools when 7 cm of snow and 18 mm of rain fell on February 12 and that shutdown was only the third time (1996, 2011, and 2019) in two decades. A heavy storm bearing 30 cm of snow and rain forced Ottawa public schools to be closed that day for the fist time in 23 years. Quebec school districts in and around Montreal were buried by two days of 40 cm of snow and rain — and followed suit by closing their schools.

In spite of all the advance media hype, ‘Snowcopalypse 2019,’ never delivered the forecasted snowfall in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. Meteorologists employed by CBC News and CTV Atlantic projected heavy snowfalls of 15 to 40 cm across the region, issuing storm warnings, and predicting hazardous road conditions. The public, and especially children, were warned to stay home and off the roads.  A featured CBC TV News report, originating in New Brunswick, aired on the eve of the storm seeking to demonstrate how effective and systematic school managers were in executing full system shutdowns.

School superintendents, acting on the advice of school transportation managers, acted almost in unison on February 13 in shutting down all schools, urban and rural, in all parts of the region. When the fast-moving storm passed, the snowfall and rain totals fell far short of the projections. Moncton Airport, according to Environment Canada, did register 26 cm of snow and 22 mm of rain, leaving 14 cm on the ground, Some 20 cm of snow also fell on Prince Edward Island, as registered at Charlottetown.

The latest Snowcopalypse proved to be a paper tiger in Halifax and much of Nova Scotia, Halifax Airport got 21 cm of snow and 22.4 mm of rain, leaving just 7 cm of snow on the ground. That was about one-third of the totals recorded on February 13, 2017, when all schools were closed in Halifax and elsewhere. Closing the schools left the streets and access highways nearly abandoned and an eerie quiet descended upon the Halifax downtown.  By the next morning, the sun was beaming and the streets remarkably clear.

Are public fears of Snowcopalypse grossly exaggerated and, if so, is it the work of the popular press or over-zealous social media commentators?  To what extent do the radically different responses to winter storms and frigid temperatures reflect regional and or cultural differences? Is the proclivity to shut down all schools an indicator of more fundamental differences in public attitudes toward the value families place on school attendance and student learning?   

 

 

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School leaders responding to crises are subject to incredible scrutiny, not to mention second guessing.  The most recent example is the full-blown crisis that exploded at Dalhousie University in mid-December 2014 over the misogynistic Facebook posts of the infamous “DDS 2015 Gentlemen.”  That group of 13 fourth-year dentistry students, on a Facebook page established in 2011, degraded women, in post after disgusting post, including the male students’ female peers.

DalDentalCartoonWhat began as a Dalhousie Student Discipline case grew into a monster threatening the university’s cherished reputation.  Since a fateful Media Conference on December 18, 2014, the school’s handling of the scandal became the radioactive issue. Dalhousie University’s president, Richard Florizone, first proposed “Restorative Justice” as the answer, then backtracked in the face of a petition calling for expulsion signed by over 50,000 concerned citizens.

The Dental School Crisis dragged on for weeks and attracted widespread public concern. Three weeks after the initial announcement, the President announced that the 13 students would have their clinical privileges suspended. When the Restorative Justice process began to unravel, the President began to sound tougher, insisting that there would be “consequences” for the alleged miscreants. How it will end is anyone’s guess, but the issue still festers and the damage has been done.

Veteran school leaders all have “war stories” like this to tell and yet they remain silent in observing crises like this spinning out-of-control.  For most  battle tested leaders, the inner voice says, “There but for the grace of God.”  For others, it’s just a reminder that being “tested by fire” is the rite of passage for all school leaders, at some point in their career.  One of Canada’s wisest law professors, former university president Wayne MacKay, did venture some gentle early advice, tempered by his trademark sensitivity. Surviving a few crises of my own has rendered me more cerebral, less definitive, and more conflicted than usual.

At times like this, where might a school leader turn? My personal experiences, in two decades of senior education leadership roles, taught me three things — take charge, seek professional advice, and keep the lawyers at bay. Crises are extraordinary events and they call for some decisiveness as well as roll-up-the sleeves, informed, effective decision-making. What you say and do matters –and mistakes are rarely forgiven. You are also foolhardy if you simply take matters into your own hands and do not seek the advice of so-called “crisis management” professionals.

My “crisis management” confidante was Dr. Allan Bonner and he saved me from disaster more than once. After being trained by Allan in Toronto in the Spring of 1997, my eyes were opened and I was much more attuned to the potential for “incidents” to become “crises.”

“A crisis is a turning point for better or worse,” says Bonner.  “A crisis is a rapidly moving and changing event that taxes your response capabilities to their limits. You will need all the assets, people and skills you have and will need to procure new assets and skills very quickly.”

“Crisis management” is critical to solving school problems, and also to protecting your most valuable asset – the institution’s reputation.  If you fumble the ball, the media, board members, faculty, students and all stakeholders start to “question whether the underpinnings of ‘the system’ work. In a crisis, the system includes your approaches, policies and procedures, laws, ethics, codes of conduct and more.”

“Take the panic out of a crisis!” is one of Bonner’s favourite statements. Sexual harrassment, criminal charges, wrongful dismissal and media investigations are issues that can generate crises in schools.  If you do not know what a SOCKO is, be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again.  You also learn to re-gain control of the situation, buy some time, get to the bottom of the matter, and anticipate the unexpected.  Most importantly, take effective action in hours to nip a crisis in the bud before it expands.

Crises are, by their very nature, challenging to resolve, but they can be made worse by leadership lapses and mis-steps. While crises do not repeat themselves, you can learn from others tested by fire and those who make a profession of extricating school leaders out of periodic hot water. Just when you think you have it mastered, another crocodile in the education lagoon takes a snap at you.

Why do School Incidents become full-blown crises?  What can be learned from the handling of the Dalhousie Dental School crisis, the Saint Mary’s University ‘Rape Chant’ scandal, and the fumbling of the Rehteah Parsons case? What’s the best place to turn for guidance — your personal conscience, past experience, or the wisdom of others?

 

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