Wimpy School Closings A Sign Of The Times

Get to class, whippersnappers! There were no "extreme weather" days when I was a kid. We walked to school in blizzards! With no boots! Uphill! Both ways!

Get to class, ya wimpy whippersnappers! There were no “extreme weather” days when I was a kid. We walked to school in blizzards! With no boots! 

Both of my kids had a delayed opening today due to two inches of slush. Wimpy! This was first published in June 2008 ,but it works just as well in March 2013.

My cell phone rang just after 9:30 on Sunday night, as I was putting my son to bed. It was an automated message from his school district.

“Due to extreme weather conditions, all students and staff will have early dismissal tomorrow.”

I asked my wife about it after Rocco was tucked in.

“What extreme weather?” I asked.

“It’s supposed to be 100 degrees tomorrow,” she said.

I shook my head, figuring this was another cheap excuse for Rocco’s school to cancel classes. They’re famous for it. They’ve called snow days when there was nothing more than frost on the ground. They’ve cancelled class based on a forecast of snow.

So I was surprised when I took my daughter to school the next day and found that our local district was only having a half-day as well.

“It’s going to be 100 degrees today,” the teacher offered.

“Doesn’t the air conditioner work?” I knew my daughter had a window unit in her classroom.

“Yes, but not all of the classrooms are air conditioned, so…” she let the sentence fade, hoping my questions would, too.  They did. It was too hot to argue.

Back in my day … 

But I started thinking back to my elementary school days. A school cancellation was rare. There might be a couple of snow days each winter, but it really had to snow. I remember shoveling our driveway just so my Mom could drive me to class. Today, anything more than a dusting results in a delayed opening if not a full day off. They closed school for a couple of days in April 1984 when half of Pequannock Township was flooded. That was a big deal. Other than that I have scant memories of school closings.

“Do you ever remember them canceling school when you were a kid because it was too hot?” I asked my wife.  She shook her head. “Never.” Neither could I.

But I had plenty of memories of sweating it out during June finals, dripping perspiration onto those blue essay books or onto those nightmarish Scantron forms (use a No. 2 pencil, and color the circle completely!) If it got really hot, they’d prop open the windows and bring in giant standing fans that looked (and sounded) like jet engines to blow the warm air around. One year the school board allowed students to wear shorts during finals week, and we were all appreciative of this magnanimous gesture.

What happened in the years since I was in grade school? When did school administrators —and students—become so…wimpy, so willing to cancel class at the slightest hint of inclement weather?  I realize I sound like an old curmudgeon (“Back in my day, Sonny, we walked to school…uphill…both ways!”) but something has gone sour—and soft—with our educational system.

Coddled Kids, Sleazy Lawyers

My guess is that lawyers are at the root of this problem (as they are so many).  Some student, somewhere, overheated and passed out during a hot June class, and the parents sued the school for negligence. Now all schools—certainly in this area, and probably across the country—have adopted overly ambitious “safety first” policies.

These policies are more about avoiding lawsuits than about protecting students. It’s easy to sue someone in this country (or something, like a school board or a business) and expensive to defend yourself. Even if you win you could face a big financial loss—a good defense attorney costs money. It’s better to prevent a problem before it starts. Cancel classes for everybody rather than risk one student slipping on a patch of ice, or getting dehydrated on a hot day.

Whether this policy is better or not is debatable (hey, I don’t want it to be my kid who slips on ice). But the society we live in makes it a moot point; too many lawyers and too many frivolous lawsuits have eroded all need for personal responsibility. If you’re careless or klutzy it’s not your fault. Make someone else pay.

One solution to these “extreme weather “ cancellations would be to mandate that all public schools have central air conditioning. It makes sense, since many schools operate year-round for summer sessions anyway.  Yes, it would be a big budget expense (at a time when school budgets are shrinking) but it would be offset by not having to close school two or three days a year.

Looking back on it, I probably should have become a teacher. You get home early each day, have summers off, and get plenty of bonus days for bad weather and the ever-popular  “teachers convention.”

Better yet, I should have gone to grad school and become a lawyer.

Then I wouldn’t have to do anything constructive at all.

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, June 2008

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