The science behind closing school

By Stina Sieg | Jan 22, 2013

There are few things that stir up opinions like the relationship between weather and school. Whenever Haywood County Schools are delayed or canceled due to bad conditions, the same question almost always comes up from various people.


The short answer is that if it's deemed too dangerous for buses to travel at least 10 percent of the routes, school must be canceled or delayed. Determining when the danger might occur, however, seems part science and part art.

Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte explained that the process goes far beyond watching weather reports on the nightly news.

"Weather forecasts are important, but we like to see something that proves to us that the roads themselves are dangerous," he said.

Often that means checking webcams stationed in far reaches of Haywood and beyond. While there may be no snow in Waynesville, there could be some in Cataloochee, Fines Creek or far eastern Tennessee. The trick is to determine where the dangerous conditions really are — and whether they're moving this way.

"Sometimes we're literally calling people west of us and saying 'Do you have any on the ground yet?'" Nolte said.

Once it's determined that bad weather really is on the move, Nolte and others in the administration estimate when it will hit, and then subtract bus route times from that number. The trick is to always give a reasonable cushion for all students and bus drivers to get home, which is why school might close at 1 p.m. — even though it's estimated snow and ice won't hit for hours.

"It may not be happening Waynesville or Canton or Clyde when we make the decision," Nolte explained, but that decision always has the entire county in mind.

Sifting through all this information, most of which comes from the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, might sound laborious, but Nolte doesn't seem to mind. He called himself and many others in the district's Central Office, "a little bit of weather geeks." Besides, Superintendent Anne Garrett likes a lot of information. In the end, she's the one who makes the call.

Once it's decided, the school system goes into action, making sure it reaches every parent it can through voice mail messages.

"We do our very, very best to make sure everyone knows," Nolte said, "and we do our best to accommodate people and stay at school if people can't be picked up."

While many parents are at work when they receive the call, the majority are able to come through and meet children, even on late notice, Nolte explained. If youngsters do happen to get stranded at school, employees watch after them until some way can be found to get them back home — safely. To Nolte and all administrators in the school system, that last word is always of the most concern.