Snow is falling on a frigid Wednesday at 5:00 AM, and many students are impatiently awaiting the fateful notification that school has been cancelled. To most, it seems that this call is made easily and quickly when snow is covering the area. However, by the time you roll out of bed and see the falling snow, Dr. Dennis Riker, superintendent of Nazareth Area School District, is already wide awake and hard at work.
|Photo Credit: NASD|
Dr. Riker has been making the final decisions for two hour delays and snow days for fifteen years. His process has changed greatly with technology, and only wishes that new technology would make inclement weather easier to predict reliably!
As soon as inclement weather is forecasted, Dr. Riker transforms into a self-proclaimed “weatherbug” and is actively watching the forecasts from multiple weather sources.
“Most times, if not all times, I make the decision from home,” he said. He uses his TV, computer, and phone—a setup he calls his “command center”—as multiple sources of live information. He watches the forecast carefully, talks with representatives from Jennings Transportation and administrators of other school districts, and views security camera footage to look at live weather conditions at each of the district's buildings. After making a decision, he starts a group chat with other personnel who will communicate the decision to the students and community. He also noted that his dog is at his side every time during the process.
He admits that the decision is a complex one with "lots of moving parts," including road and sidewalk conditions, building preparations, rapidly changing temperature and precipitation types, as well as considering the safety of inexperienced high school student drivers and the fact that many faculty live further away.
Not only does he have those in Nazareth to help him decide, but he often considers what neighboring districts- such as Easton and Northampton- will do too. His communications with other superintendents and districts in both Lehigh and Northampton counties allow him to gain information and have second opinions to assist his decision.
When making the decision, he has to factor in students who walk, drive, and take the bus. The buses, which need a three-hour window to complete their routes and return to the depot, are known for poor performance in snowy and icy weather. Riker explains that his "least favorite forecasts" are ones for ice because they make his decision particularly difficult for walkers, drivers, and bus riders.
He also has to account for weather differences in different regions of the school district. If one area has not been affected by the bad weather, but another has, he makes sure to put that into consideration. Riker recalled an incident a few years ago when Bushkill Township ran out of salt and he had no choice but to close the entire district; in that case, the Bushkill road conditions not only affected students at Butz Elementary, but also students from NAIS, NAMS, and NAHS from that area of the district.
For Dr. Riker, the decision is based most heavily on concerns about student safety. He recalled a past incident in a different district: some students had not been informed of the delay, which resulted in them waiting at the bus stop in freezing temperatures. To avoid this, he puts all his thoughts and considerations in before making any call about school, sometimes being sure to warn families to check back for updates in case the situation changes from a delay to a close.
He says, “[The safety of the students] is all on my shoulders.”
Most would assume that having the pressure of making a big decision would be the most difficult part of it all, but Dr. Riker said that the hardest part is knowing that "no matter what we do, someone will not be happy about it."
However, he is quick to point out that he'd rather field phone calls from people about an unnecessary closing, rather than risk putting a single student's safety in jeopardy by deciding to remain open in bad weather. He firmly believes that most days he makes the right call.
For years, kids from Nazareth have woken up to snow with the immediate wonder of whether or not school will be cancelled. The process tends to stay under wraps, with few people really knowing the complexity and the delicacy that faces Dr. Riker every time those flurries begin to come down. Nonetheless, we can rest easier knowing that this process is in the hands of someone who can handle it.
|Photo Credit: Alan Davis|