In a snow day about-face, Denver metro area schools send students home early

5 min. read
A lone figure crosses an expanse of snow in Cheesman Park. Oct. 29, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat  

Schools around the Denver metro area released students early Tuesday after much-criticized decisions to hold school at all with icy conditions, blowing snow, and a dire forecast.

Some Denver Public Schools parents did not receive notifications that middle and high school students would be released at noon until as late as 11:56 a.m. Elementary students were released at 2 p.m.

Will Jones, a district spokesman, said the community was notified as soon as a decision was made and that staff would remain on-site with students whose parents could not pick them up on time and who did not have their own way home.

"We're not going to put the kids out in the cold," he said.

An intense winter storm is expected to dump an additional 6 to 10 inches across the metro area before easing Wednesday. Initial forecasts called for some snow overnight Tuesday, with a possible break in the morning hours and heavy snowfall starting in the afternoon or early evening.

But by 7 a.m. snow was falling hard, and metro area police departments and the Colorado State Patrol were advising anyone against driving anywhere if they could possibly help it.

That was too late for large school districts to pivot. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova had made the decision to open schools at normal start times at 4:30 a.m. Douglas County, Aurora Public Schools, Cherry Creek, Adams 12, and others all held school Tuesday, only to first cancel afterschool activities and then announce an early dismissal at midday.

Decisions about whether to hold school in bad weather often come in for heavy criticism and second-guessing. School officials say they need to balance a number of competing interests. Along with concerns about safety and lost instructional time, districts such as Denver must also take into account the hardships disruption causes low-income parents. Two-thirds of district students qualify for subsidized lunches, and some of them don't eat when they don't go to school.

Parents took to social media to lambast the decision and complain about lack of communication.

Text messages and phone calls to parents whose children ride the bus warned of 45-minute delays and told students to "please remain at the stop" despite temperatures in the teens.

Denver sent out a press release a little after 11 a.m. about the decision to close school early -- just two hours after some schools started classes. Parent notifications started to go out around 11:30 a.m.

"We made the decision as quickly as possible, once the senior leadership team was able to get together and gather information from all our partners," Jones said. Those partners include local and regional law enforcement and public works agencies.

The decision was met with both gratitude and frustration.

For some independent older students, the early dismissal was a relief: not quite as good as sleeping in, but much better than staying in school.

But others questioned why school hadn't been canceled outright.

At Denver's North High School, the snow-packed parking lot was jammed with cars shortly after noon as students, teachers, and staff left campus. Students waited for their parents to pick them up or walked to a nearby bus stop. Four students took down the American flag early for the day.

"I don't think we should have had school in the first place," said sophomore Madeline Berg, who was walking to a nearby corner to meet her mother. "Especially with high schoolers driving."

Students and teachers reported that attendance was sparse to begin with because of the weather.

Jones said he did not have official attendance numbers midday Tuesday, but said anecdotal accounts were that many families "held their own snow day."

Eric Gorski contributed reporting.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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