Although students woke up this morning to a snow day, the call to cancel school begins much earlier, usually first thing the day before. Here's a story I wrote last year about the anatomy of a snow day and what goes into such a call.
(Reprinted from Post-Bulletin Dec. 19, 2008)
Century High School sophomore Emily Holman woke up his morning to an early Christmas present — Rochester had its first snow day of the year. “I’m so excited about the snow day,” the 15-year-old said. “I’ll be missing my American studies test.”
More than 30 school districts -- nearly all -- in southeast Minnesota closed today, as a winter storm originally forecasted to hit the area on Thursday evening waited until early this morning to dump snow across the region. By 6 a.m. today nearly 6 inches were on the ground as the National Weather Service predicted a total snowfall of 5 to 8 inches, coming at more than an inch an hour at one point in the morning.
While Holman and her siblings Drew and Anna found out about the snow day a few minutes before 8 a.m., the decision was 24 hours in the making. The process to close school begins as weather reports are received by school district officials. School superintendents make the final call, but first consult with staff members who have been monitoring weather reports and transportation estimates.
The fate of the school day is decided around 5 a.m. In 30 years, Rochester schools have been closed 49 times due to weather, according to the Rochester schools transportation department. The decision on the 50th began Thursday morning.
8 a.m. Thursday — Weather forecasting service Accuweather delivers a morning update to Rochester schools. The forecast warns of roughly 3 to 5 inches of snow in Rochester. District transportation supervisor Jeff Kappers takes note. The small TV in his office is already tuned to the Weather Channel. The National Weather Service’s Web site is now permanently fastened to his computer screen, next to the maps and spreadsheets of busing routes.
10:44 a.m. — The National Weather Service announces a winter storm warning for southeast Minnesota. Snowfall of 6 to 8 inches is expected in the storm’s path of southeast Minnesota, reaching as far north as Austin.
1:41 p.m. — Kappers looks at the snow warnings and seems optimistic that school should open Friday as scheduled. Still, the real work will begin Friday morning once the snow has fallen and the snowplows are on the streets. Rochester Public Works employees need 2.5 hours to clear the main roadways around town and school buses need to be on the roads by 6 a.m. At this point, the storm shouldn’t deter that timing, but that could change.
“Storms don’t say, ‘I’m not supposed to go north of this line,” Kappers says. “We could end up with 1 inch or we could end up with 10 inches.”
1:45 p.m. — True to form, the storm warning moves north to the border of Olmsted and Mower counties. Kappers isn’t too concerned, yet. “If this is all we get, we should be all right,” he says. “But if that line keeps creeping north, who knows?”
2:45 p.m. — The storm warning moves north again, now including Rochester and Olmsted County in the snowfall estimate of 5 to 8 inches.
4:09 p.m. — Nearing the end of the workday, Kappers sits in a waiting pattern until morning. Not much can be done until the snow falls. “It makes it more challenging because it’s a moving target now,” Kappers says. “If they keep shifting it north, it will be even more so in the morning.”
5:15 p.m. — Rochester Public Works maintenance manager Joe Fitzpatrick scours over information from four weather services. A private Wisconsin-based service estimates the storm will start at 9:30 p.m. and last into the morning. By 3 a.m., 3 inches of snow are expected. By 7:30 a.m., that should double.
“Tomorrow morning rush hour is supposed to be a mess,” Fitzpatrick says.
9:57 p.m. — The National Weather Service updates earlier warnings and puts the snow arrival at “after midnight.” The projected start date of the snowstorm passes without a new flake on the ground in Rochester.
1 a.m. today — Fitzpatrick wakes up to see how much snow has fallen, but there’s nothing on the ground. That isn’t a good sign, he says.
3:30 a.m. — Rochester Public Works plows hit Broadway and the other main roads around town.
4:50 a.m. — Kappers calls some of the contracted bus drivers and hears that roads already have 5 to 6 inches of snow cover. Another inch or two are likely to fall this morning. When Rochester delayed school two hours on Dec. 9, snow had stopped falling by this time. “It’s going to be an interesting morning,” Kappers says. “Given the amount of snow, we may lean toward closing.”
5:06 a.m. — Fitzpatrick says the main roads will already need to be plowed again, but other streets might still be blanketed by snow. “Residentials will be a mess yet,” he says, putting the chance of a school closing in Rochester at 50 percent. “I would think the schools might close. I think out in the country roads it would be pretty tough.”
5:20 a.m. — Rochester superintendent Romain Dallemand makes the decision to cancel schools. After conferring with Kappers, he hears the roads won’t be clear in time. “The roads aren’t safe,” Dallemand says. Although it didn’t seem likely on Thursday, the storm’s path changed the district’s estimates.
“It goes to show how things can change in short period of time,” Kappers says.
7:58 a.m. — Children wake up around town, prayers answered as they receive an extra day of holiday vacation. Anna Holman, 12, represents the few children who might be disappointed though.
Her seventh-grade class at Kellogg Middle School planned to attend a performance of “A Christmas Carol” in Lanesboro. “I kind of wanted to go to ‘Christmas Carol,’ but it’s OK I guess,” Anna says.