A Grumpy Educator's Guide to Snow Days

My biggest realization that I am, in fact, a grownup came when I started to get disappointed for school cancellations for snow.

This week looks likely to bring much disappointment from the ranks of the cranky grown up crowd. Schools in Nashville, including ours, are closed today for a mixture of ice and snow. We may have to cancel more days.

This isn't a blizzard by any definition.  But absent a robust city investment in salt trucks and a solid plan to train a high percentage of city workers for temporary snow duty, we are at the mercy of the temperature. As long as we stay below freezing, all roads won't be cleared in any reasonable amount of time.

That led me to research a little about the nexus between snow removal and school closure.  I found some interesting research:

In the South, any snow is enough snow to cancel school.  However, Nashville is close enough to the 1 to 3 inch cancellation zones to justify a conversation about investing in a more robust snow removal infrastructure.

How much would such an infrastructure cost?  There isn't much research, especially in low snowfall cities and states. The Atlanta debacle produced a lot of commentary but very little hard evidence. 

The NY Comptroller just released a study saying that, over the course of the past 12 years, NYC has spent $1.8 million per inch for snow removal.

You would think that Nashville would cost less, but it may actually cost more.

  1. First, the Comptroller found that snow removal actually costs more per inch in low snowfall years, because many of the annual costs are fixed.  For example, if you increase your fleet of snowplows, those plows will cost the same if you have an 5 inches or 5 feet of snow (outside of increased maintenance associated with increased load).  Of course there are some significant variable costs, such as overtime for city workers who serve as temporary snow removal staff.
  2. Second, it's hard to believe, but Nashville/Davidson County (526 sq. mi.) is actually larger than New York City (489 sq. mi.).  NYC likely has a lot more miles of roads though.  How many more?  I can't find the data, but if you can, send it my way.

Some folks have actually studied the impact of snow cancellation on student learning.  They found that cancellation can, in certain circumstances, be more beneficial than keeping school open. It turns out that if you keep school open when many families will likely opt to stay home, then you have a serious differentiation problem:

"When students return to school after a snow day, they have all missed exactly the same lesson. Teachers can thus compensate by pushing all of the their lesson plans back a day for the rest of the school year. This will have no effect on student achievement as measured by standardized tests, so long as the teacher's planned schedule had included at least some instructional time devoted to subjects not on the tests."

Of course, safety trumps all factors. But what would it take to make the roads as safe as fast as possible?  What would it take to make the increased capacity for removal worth the cost benefit analysis?

Some key facts that likely exist somewhere that could help with this calculation:

  • What would the annual cost of snow removal be for Nashville if it wanted to increase capacity to move from the "cancel school for any snow" zone to the "cancel school for 1 to 3 inches zone?"
  • How many days, on average, a year are kids missing for snow in the 0-3 inch zone?  How do we quantify all of that missed learning? How many days, on average, missed for snow warrant a greater city investment?

It seems like missing this much school (and work for adults) merits a transparent discussion of this cost benefit analysis.  If I were a reporter, I would spend some time figuring out the answers to these questions.