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An Interview with Dr. Roberts

Based on some of the responses about some of your policies, can you give us a bit of background about why you released your Inclement Weather Statement?

 

The reason for releasing it was, there had been a lot of discussions and I don’t have all the background you all have, having gone to school here for each year of your school career. I’ve only been here for two years so anything that transpired with delays, cancellations, whatever that process was, really not aware of that. It really wasn’t perhaps, like, a formal statement, and of course, the winters vary. You have warm winters, you have cold winters, you have different levels of precipitation from winter to winter so it’s hard to compare what one superintendent may have done as we aren’t operating with the same winters and making calls in the same conditions… so as we were hearing the discussion we decided to release a statement to clarify a lot of the points, and I will add to that, only in the last two years have we implemented social media as a communication tool, so when I came in I realized we needed to utilize social media since many of you, as students, key in on certain social media sites, whether it be Facebook or Twitter, or even Instagram or Snapchat. Parents are still on Facebook so we try to keep everything at least on our Facebook and Twitter feed, or page, so people can key in on those. We believe that really instigated the conversation, so that when there is a delay or no delay, then there’s going to be a reaction to that. A couple of weeks ago there was a forecast of severe weather coming in on a Friday, and on Thursday night I made the decision to release a statement as to when we would make a decision. I did that because other schools around us were already choosing to close and we were beginning to get questions about that on our social media sites, or through emails, so we released a statement saying we were going to wait until the next morning to make a decision because sometimes forecasts are just wrong. The information comes out and there’s no reason for some decisions. We want to at least know what the conditions were going to be, get the most updated forecast, before we make a decision, and that’s what we did. But in doing that we created a lot of dialogue, so that one statement that seems relatively neutral on the face of it, you know, to say that, “Hey everybody, we’re going to wait till tomorrow morning to make a decision, until we have better information, updated information on what the weather conditions are and what the forecasts are for the rest of the day,” … a lot of conversation. And I don’t think, we didn’t number in terms of pros and cons or pluses and minuses in terms of how the comments came in but it seemed to be more negative than positive in reading through those, but we waited until the next morning, we made a decision, and we moved on. Then last week…we called a delay on Tuesday, so the 16th, and later that day, after just getting a lot of comments about, we should’ve closed or why wait so long to call a delay… we just want to release a statement. That particular day, there was just a combination of cold weather and the roads weren’t very good. As we weight those situations, and as we say in the statement, cold weather is a thing that we pay attention to, but it doesn’t scare us off as much as maybe other school corporations. And one year ago, December of 2016, my first year here, we had a cold weather day right before Christmas, and we started to get on our social media, which we had as a new communication method within the corporation, we started getting questions about “hey, are we going to close or delay school tomorrow?” So I released a statement then about, based on the weather we’re having, we’re probably going to have school. We faced some resistance but we did put it out. There were some interesting pieces of that and maybe in the first piece of that, or the first pieces of that were something about a new phenomenon of cold weather. I wasn’t meaning that it was something new, I was meaning that it was something new that schools were calling off school due to cold weather, and that really has, as a superintendent now for 11 years, and an assistant superintendent for 5 previously that had been involved in school cancellations and closings, and as a high school administrator for 9 years prior to that. So being very close to decisions about whether or not schools were closed or delayed, cold weather was something that had to be extremely cold. And not that 0 is not extremely cold, but something that is so far beyond the norm is something for which we need to take pause. Over time, it’s social pressure, it is social media, it’s the number of access people have to us, so we’re hearing those comments and knowing what people are thinking, or at least the ones that are choosing to tell us that. So schools have started to delay or close on cold weather days when they didn’t, maybe, before. For us, we look at it as, as a cold weather day and our buses can start, it’s up to us to get in early and start them and make sure they’re running, check our buildings and make sure everything’s running well with the heaters and it’s warm. If those are the case, we’re probably going to try to go to school. As I said in the statement, looking at data […] and the science of cold weather, 20 degrees or more below with 30 minutes of exposure, that’s where we’re starting to get into some dangerous territory in terms of frostbite. Warmer than that, and out in the cold for less time than that, then the risk is pretty small. Now if the roads are bad too, then we have a situation where a kid might be waiting on the bus, and the bus slides off the road because the roads aren’t very good. Now the kid is waiting longer on the roads. Or, a kid is walking to school and it’s more treacherous because the roads aren’t good and the sidewalks are slick. Drivers are not as careful, or maybe they’re more careful but aren’t as successful with that because of the roads; that creates some issues. So a combination of cold weather and roads may result in a delay. That’s what happened last Tuesday [Jan. 16], but we believed we could get in safely after the sun came up and we could see the roads, deal with the cold weather, and get in to school. That worked out okay. The piece on roads overall is, do we see what they’re going to be like in the forecast. This morning [Jan. 24] was an anomaly: we were not expecting a lot of precipitation, not necessarily that the temperatures were supposed to drop below 32 […] at 4:45 this morning we were okay. At about 6 o’clock this morning as buses were already rolling, it did start to get sick, and as the next two hours go on it did get slicker. Schools around us did call delays, and what you have to understand is, the weather may develop over time, but other schools did call a delay so that comparison we always have […] adds to the situation. So, long story short, just getting out a statement, our social media being new – it is only our second year but it gets a lot of information to us, so that piece – but also lots of communications that we receive, phone calls that we get, […] we talked amongst ourselves and believed it was important to put out a statement. It received a lot of attention too. When we put out the decision to wait to delay until Friday morning, the response seemed pretty negative; we’ve had 0 comments about this statement on our Facebook page. It was shared a ton, it was viewed 16 or 17,000 times, but no negative comments there. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t any, but people just chose not to share them on our social media sites.

 

You’ve been an administrator, involved in the school system for 24 years. What corporation were you part of?

 

I was at Batesville Community School Corporation for 23 years, so now in Bartholomew for almost two. As a Batesville administrator I was a high school assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent, so all four positions there, and a superintendent a second year. As stated, when I brought that up, I have a lot of experience, paying attention to what was happening and the kind of decisions that were being made as regards to school closings.

 

Do you think the system of calling delays in Batesville was different from what we’ve seen in Bartholomew in the past few years before your time?

 

I honestly don’t know, and the only reason I say that is because I have not tracked the data about the number of delays that were called, or the number of school closings. Even if I did, I’m not aware of exactly what the weather conditions were like that morning and I don’t have the variables that were taken into consideration for that day. If we were calling more delays because of cold weather here, then that would be a change. Our approach in Batesville, mostly like our approach here now, is that we can probably have school on a cold weather day. If it’s so cold that we’re looking at a delay, it’s probably so cold we need to close because the temperatures do not vary too much in two hours. The sun may come up, it may be lighter, it may feel better to go outside, particularly if the sun came out and it’s not just a gray morning, but the temperature is likely not any different between 6 or 7 A.M. and then two hours later at 8 or 9 A.M. when kids are getting on buses and heading to school, or begin to walk to school. Actually, there oftentimes is a degree or two change for the worse, or negative, with the temperature so that’s where I’m coming from. If we’re going to make a decision about cold weather, it probably shouldn’t be a delay, it probably should be a closing if it’s just because of cold weather. Contrary to that with road conditions, road conditions can get better in two hours. There is daylight to see those roads, so a delay for road conditions or bad weather – not cold weather – I think is a different call. With all of that, I hesitate to call delays anyway. It is safety first, so if we don’t believe we can travel the roads safely we have to delay or close. If I’m being given information that it’s a “slow-go,” that’s what my transportation people might say to me, that we’ve checked the roads this morning and it’s a slow-go in terms of we just have to take it easy on the roads, we can do that, so let’s get them in. That goes back to my statement then about teenage drivers, who we are thinking about, we have to defer too to parents who might say, “I don’t want you driving to school today, the roads may be a little bit slick so why don’t you hop on the bus that’s going by our house and ride that into school,” or “I’ll take you,” or whatever the case may be. The delay piece from that, it’s such a change in routine for families, our kids; we have many kids who are relying on their parents to get them on the bus, feed them, or rely on us for food first thing in the morning. When we move that back two hours, we’ve changed that entire routine, so parents are going off to work, they’re leaving kids at home by themselves, I think that’s a safety issue. Kids are then left to walk to school by themselves, or wait on the bus by themselves, and who knows what age of kids these might be. Hopefully parents are able to take care of that and get somebody to watch their kids, or whatever the short-term solution for delay or closing might be. Then we as a school corporation are responsible for many kids, two thirds of their meals a day come from us. Hopefully they’re getting supper at home but they’re relying on us for meals and if we don’t have the morning one, breakfast is gone. We do consider that; it’s not the overarching factor or the final determinant of what we’re going to do because ultimately safety is, but it certainly is in the back of our minds of why we would hesitate to call a delay or why we don’t just automatically go to a delay. I think many school corporations do not take that approach. They call a delay the night before because it looks like it’s not going to be very good in the morning. […] It’s those other pieces that I worry about that come from a delay. And we’re thinking about productivity of the school day as well. And I do want to couch all those things we consider and say, it is safety first. If we are on the roads and we see that it’s not going to be good, we consider that.

 

[…]

 

Earlier with cold weather, you said the only thing that warrants a delay is something that’s really out of the ordinary. As an estimate of a temperature, when would you call a delay for cold or unsafe weather?

 

A wind chill of -20 gives us greater pause than anything else. And I think that just because we have complaints from students doesn’t mean that we will change and have a delay on cold weather days or even if it’s a little slow like here this morning. We’re going to try to look at facts, but even doing that doesn’t work as well. This morning is a prime example of that, where we could probably shove things back a bit, get to daylight, put the cruiser on the roads a little bit earlier. […] We’re going to try to work on facts and so, from my perspective, it’s not unsafe from 10° or below, or 0°, until we get wind chill factored in and it gets to about -20. But even at -20, how long are we really talking about before it gets actually dangerous? It’s cold, but there’s no actual danger in [waiting for the bus or walking into the school from the parking lot]. Why we cited the -20 with 30 minutes or more of exposure is because that’s when we perceive real danger, not just complaining because it’s cold or not wanting to go to school and hoping for a delay, or whatever the case might be, and I’m going to assume that, and I could be wrong, most teenagers would prefer to go to school – they don’t want the day to be added on later – but they would love to have a delay. […] From a teenager’s perspective, I can sleep longer, still go to school and get that day counted, do my sports or clubs after school, and everybody wins. But we just don’t look at it from that perspective. We’re looking at it more from, what is the actual risk or danger involved? Is it real? If the busses are running, if schools are warm, and it would be rare for a person to be out for 30 minutes or more, period. So even at -20, I don’t think we’re going to have many kids, if any, for more than 30 minutes to be exposed to the weather conditions and to get frostbitten. We take that all into consideration. Warmer than that, including 0, we’re in Indiana. We have to expect that temperatures are going to drop to 10, even to 0, and maybe we’re even going to get a few days of minus temperatures. We should expect that from time to time, I don’t see that as extreme. And contrary to that, I saw one post that said, “I don’t care if the superintendent is from Wisconsin…” […] I’m not from Wisconsin, I’m from the area actually, I’m a Hoosier so I’m used to the same weather conditions that people in Columbus are.

 

What would you say to people who maybe don’t have the capacity or opportunity to keep their children warm when they’re waiting outside for the bus or when their kids go out to recess in the cold temperatures?

 

I think we can go out to recess a lot colder than we do. I see kids being kept inside on days that I think it would be okay for us to go out. I think it’s healthy for a kid to go outside. Parents who are afraid or concerned about the clothes that they have for their kids, we have two things. One, this is a community that is very giving and caring, and there is access to warm clothes, so we as a community can help with challenges in that way. I would then add that, […] the ability of our community to give a child a warm coat and a hat, or for the parent to buy that for their child one time, is different to the ongoing cost of food, three times a day, every day. In both pieces though, if we are aware of a kid who does not have a warm coat, we would like to know so we can help with that. The food piece, we’re aware of that because as students come into our system, we go through a process of free and reduced lunch counts, things like that. So we have a way of knowing that and seeing that we can address that need. A child with free or reduced lunch may be more apt to not have a coat, and our counselors at schools are paying close attention to families in need and trying to get them the things that they need so I think, at the end of that, we’re pretty confident that most, I can’t say all, but most are in a position to be able to dress as well as they can for cold weather. If not, that’s where the parent piece does come in. We have to rely on parents to make some tough decisions for their child too, including whether their child should even go to school. By saying that I won’t necessarily make friends with other administrators, that these would count as excused absences, because I’ll get questions from administrators and counselors about so many absences and if they should let students make up their work. My comment to administrators is that we’re not going to fight that battle because someone will always take that to the extreme. […] So a long answer to your question about clothing versus food and so forth, we believe we have a way to help with that if that’s the case. If a parent feels like they don’t have the clothing necessary for their child to be safe, they need to keep their child at home if we’re going to school.

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