A City of Kenai grader moves snow from a roadway on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A City of Kenai grader moves snow from a roadway on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

To close or not to close? Winter storms keep school district admin up at night

The district’s most recent snow day was on Dec. 12

As back-to-back snowstorms have pummeled the Kenai Peninsula, education leaders have been faced with whether or not to delay school start times or, in some cases, cancel classes altogether.

The same storms have prompted multi-day closures in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough school districts in recent weeks, with students moving to remote learning. As reported by Alaska Public Media, Friday marked ASD’s second snow day in a row and the sixth snow day in the last two weeks. Friday was the fifth consecutive remote learning day for Mat-Su schools.

Since the start of the current school year, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has on three occasions called for a snow day for affected schools. The district’s most recent snow day was on Dec. 12 in the wake of a weekend winter storm that dropped 2 feet of snow on the central peninsula, prompting closures throughout the area.

KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent said Friday that, leading up to a weather event, she and KPBSD Director of Planning and Operations Kevin Lyon communicate with staff in different parts of the borough for weather updates and are regularly checking schools’ external cameras to track snow accumulation and forecast accuracy.

Correspondence between the two about how weather events may affect school operations, Dendurent said, usually begins around 3 a.m. The final decision to delay or cancel school is usually made between 4:45 and 5 a.m. Once that decision is made, Dendurent said she posts an alert to the KPBSD Facebook page and then through PowerSchool, KPBSD’s student and family portal.

Earlier this week, KPBSD announced on Sunday evening school closures and delayed starts for Monday. Dendurent said they were able to make the decision early because she and Lyon “knew what was coming.”

The biggest consideration when deciding whether to cancel or delay schools, she said, is whether or not school buses are able to travel down side roads to collect students.

School bus drivers leave the district depot at 5:25 a.m. on the eastern and central Kenai Peninsula, and at 5:40 a.m. on the southern peninsula. The first school bus pickup times for students are 6 a.m. on the eastern peninsula, 6:10 a.m. on the central peninsula and 6:20 a.m. on the southern peninsula.

Like other motorists, KPBSD bus drivers need time to warm up and defrost buses before they can leave to pick up students, which pushes drivers’ start time back even earlier.

On Sunday, when Dendurent said she and Lyon knew a major snowstorm was coming, the closure and delay message was pushed to more than 9,500 people and ultimately reached more than 31,000 because of the additional contacts. She said those alerts don’t generally go to people listed as emergency contacts, because the district doesn’t consider snow days an emergency.

With PowerSchool, Dendurent is able to send alerts via text, email and phone to students and families. Calls cannot be made to families, however, until 6 a.m. or later. Communications are sent to the contacts in a student’s PowerSchool profile and parents who are currently not receiving the alerts can update their contact information there.

Still, Dendurent said closing schools is a last resort for the district and not a decision that is made “lightly.” The weight of that decision, along with potentially inaccurate forecasts, is why KPBSD does not announce school delays or closures the night before school, she said.

“We do not want to cancel school,” she said.

Lyon agreed, saying the later the district waits to cancel school the more accurate and up-to-date the forecast data is.

“We’re trying to make the best decisions we can,” Lyon said Friday.

Any days missed for weather must be made up later in the year. Dendurent said KPBSD has two vacation days built into the school calendar that can be used as makeup days: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Good Friday or Veterans Day. Whether students get Good Friday or Veterans Day off depends on the school year, as the two alternate.

If the district needs more makeup days, Dendurent said they can either take days from winter or spring break, or add days at the end of the school year. They prefer not to take days out of designated breaks she said, realizing that many people may have already planned trips out of town.

More information about the school district’s process for determining whether to delay or close schools can be found on the KPBSD school closure or delay website at kpbsd.org/students-parents/school-closure-or-delay.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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