After the controversial decision to close all Waterloo Region public and Catholic schools on February 20, a cold but otherwise clear day, both school boards took heat from frustrated parents.
The school closures were automatic, as temperatures that morning dipped below minus-35 Celsius, the threshold mandated by a joint severe weather procedure enacted in the region last fall.
Now, both boards are considering walking back the policy.
“We always review our procedures on a regular basis and so this really isn’t any different kind of practice, but given the feedback we have received from the community we want to do it in a timely fashion and so in the next month or so we will be taking a look at it,” Waterloo Region District School Board superintendent Lila Read said. “For us, it is always about student safety, but I think the main concern that has come from our community is from the notion of choice. So parents that feel that the school should have been open feel that is a choice that they should be able to make.”
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Waterloo Catholic District School Board official John Shewchuk acknowledged to The Observer that the board would be looking at changes, but declined further comment.
Ironically, the severe weather policy that called for the school cancellations was spurred by concerned parents who, after last winter’s brutal cold, looked to the boards to take action to help protect students from dangerous weather.
“The addition of a threshold around extreme frigid temperatures was introduced this school year, and that was in response to concerns that we had from the community during some days where we had some very cold temperatures,” Read said. “The reality is, that when you make decisions, and when at the heart of those decisions is something as important as the safety of our children, people are very invested and there are going to be some divergent views.”
Currently, the frigid cold guidelines state: “Frigid temperatures are considered those where the temperature is minus-35°C with wind chill or colder. The general manager of Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region (STSWR), or designate, will check and assess the temperatures in Waterloo Region using Environment Canada’s wind-chill index by 5:30 a.m.. If the temperature is forecasted to reach or exceed minus-35°C with wind-chill at 7 a.m., he/she will inform the Director or designate. In this situation buses will not operate and schools will be closed. The Education Centre will be open to those employees who can safely arrive to work.”
In a letter to WRDSB chair Kathleen Woodcock, Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris chimed in, calling for a revision to the policy.
“While parents and I accept, and understand, that buses may be cancelled in cold frigid temperatures, there is a concern regarding the automatic closure of schools once those buses are cancelled.”
Parents should have the option of driving their kids in to school, he argued.
“I want to be clear, it’s not about sending kids out into freezing temperatures, it’s about giving parents the opportunity to make a decision for themselves,” Harris said.
In minus-35 degree weather, frost nip and frost bite can strike exposed skin in minutes, Read added, and that doesn’t just leave students at risk; on cold days, crossing guards are not able to work, adding to the safety risk.
The bottom line, Read said, is to always “think about what is best in terms of student safety.”