The largest school board in Atlantic Canada, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), may be the first in the nation to defend cancelling classes on Monday February 8, 2016 to prepare for a “pending blizzard” that eventually produced a routine snowstorm after school hours. Hours later they announced a second day full system shutdown, provoking howls of protest from vocal critics and citizens claiming boards are too quick to call snow days that inconvenience parents and cost teaching time.
“They have closed all schools due to a ‘pending’ storm. Not one flake of snow has dropped out of the sky,” one woman wrote on Facebook. But HRSB spokesman Doug Hadley said officials had information that the snow could start by 11 a.m. “It wasn’t the question of getting everyone to school, it was a question of getting everyone home safely,” Hadley wrote in an email. That decision not only impacted 137 schools, 4,000 teachers, and almost 40,000 students, but precipitated a rash of early business closures virtually idling the region’s leading business and government centre.
Closing schools system-wide is a rarity in many areas of the country. My AIMS report, Schools Out, Again, produced in April 2010, raised the first alarm bells. Comparing Maritime school closure records with those in six different jurisdictions, including Winnipeg, Calgary, York Region, Durham Region, and the Quebec Eastern Townships, the pattern was abundantly clear — most school districts outside the region close school only 2-3 times a year or never, not for an average of 8 to 12 days a year, as in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland/Labrador.
A survey of Nova Scotia’s highway cameras on February 8, 2016 at 3 pm showed no snow cover on 47 or the 51 highway locations monitored by highway cams. Yet the Halifax, Annapolis, South Shore, and Tri-County regional school boards closed all schools, all day. The Acadian School Board cancelled its mainland schools. Université Sainte-Anne, Acadia, Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent, NSCAD, and Saint Mary’s Universities all shut down.
Astute political observer Parker Donham, curator of The Contrarian, felt compelled to declare that “Nova Scotia schools no longer have zero tolerance of snow. They have zero tolerance of the possibility of future snow.” He also tallied up the financial cost to the province of this one day of weather paranoia:
- Upwards of 100,000 school children lost a day in school unnecessarily.
- Thousands of teachers and school board staff got a paid day off. [HRSB staff worked a half day.]
- Roughly 68,000 households had to scramble to make last minute child care arrangements (based on an estimated 1.5 students per family).
- Some of those parents lost a day of work.
- Thousands of employers endured absenteeism and paid work time diverted to managing the school boards’ indifference to community needs, provincial employees were sent home at 1 pm.
Defenders of full system Snow Day school closures maintain that school boards should always “err on the side of safety” and trot out the standard claim that students are safer “off -the-roads.” Many of the apologists also claim that riding school buses is somehow more dangerous than riding in personal vehicles, driving ATVs, and sliding down snow-covered hills. That argument deserves further investigation.
School buses continue to be one of the safest methods of travel for children and youth. Only 0.3 percent of all collisions resulting in personal injury or death involved school buses. Yet, over a 10 year span (1995-2004), children traveled by bus as many as 6 billion times, an estimated 600 million pupil-trips per year and 3,400,000 pupil-trips each day. Over the 10-year period, only 142 people died in collisions involving school buses; and just five of these fatalities were bus passengers.
The Ontario Ministry of Transportation compares the likelihood of accidents using various modes of transportation. Compared to occupants of school vehicles, occupants of cars and trucks are: 42 times more likely to be in a fatal collision; 45 times more likely to be in an injury collision; and 25.7 times more likely to be in a collision of any kind. A United States study in the American Journal of Public Health (2005), looked at crash counts during snowy weather versus dry weather conditions and found that snow covered roads generally produce less severe crashes and fewer fatalities.
Some school boards, most notably the Calgary Board of Education, insist that school children are far safer on school buses and in schools during most snowstorms. It’s also fair to say that most school districts outside Atlantic Canada shut their systems down only as a last resort in the most severe, hazardous conditions. Cancelling classes so families can prepare for snow storms is truly unique to Canada’s Atlantic provinces and undoubtedly contributes to the region’s well-known productivity challenges.
Why are Maritime school boards so quick to cancel classes in advance of snow storms? Where’s the research evidence to support the claim that kids are safer in personal vehicles or playing unattended outside than travelling by bus to teacher-supervised schools? Is it time to assess the safety risks of cancelling schools with such frequency?