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Making the call: A snow day or a late start to classes?

While East Grand Forks students enjoyed their first snow day of the school year Tuesday, Grand Forks kids and teenagers had to settle for a two-hour delayed start to classes -- despite the same stormy weather on both sides of the Red River.

Monique Jorde
Monique Jorde throws a shovel full of snow as she and her brother, Lionel, spend part of their day off from school shovelling out in East Grand Forks Tuesday. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

While East Grand Forks students enjoyed their first snow day of the school year Tuesday, Grand Forks kids and teenagers had to settle for a two-hour delayed start to classes -- despite the same stormy weather on both sides of the Red River.

Local school officials considered slightly different factors as they considered early Tuesday whether to cancel classes entirely or instead call for a late start to the school day.

"The demographics of the two school districts are completely different," East Grand Forks Superintendent David Pace said.

About 35 percent to 40 percent of students in the district live out of town, and about the same percentage rely on buses to get to school each day.

That's a far cry from the group of students that go to school in Grand Forks, Superintendent Larry Nybladh said.


"I'd say 98 percent of our students live either in the city limits or at the Grand Forks Air Force Base," he said. "It's just very different circumstances in each district."

Making a decision

Many schools in the region Tuesday canceled classes entirely or, like UND, called for a two-hour late start to give city and university crews more time to clear the roads and improve travel conditions.

While they ultimately are responsible for deciding whether to cancel or delay school for the day, both Pace and Nybladh said they rely on advisers throughout the community and region to get to an informed decision.

Pace said district officials look at the potential length of the storm, visibility, snow depth, wind speed and temperatures, among other factors, on stormy days like Tuesday.

Nybladh said he consults Grand Forks officials and discusses the forecast with the National Weather Service and Leon Osborne, director of the Regional Weather Information Center.

But an inside man also helps Nybladh make up his mind -- Perry Marto, the district's director of buildings and grounds, starts work early on stormy days and gets updated information from contacts around the region.

"He also travels throughout the district starting as early as 2 a.m. monitoring weather conditions himself," he said.


Time crunch

District officials usually have to make the call a few times each year. East Grand Forks canceled school twice last winter, while Grand Forks students had one snow day and one two-hour late start in January.

Pace said the district is under a "time crunch" to make the call. He announced just after 4 a.m. Tuesday that schools would start two hours late, but said he decided to cancel school entirely at about 7:30 a.m. because buses would have to start on their routes by 8 a.m. to get the students.

"We made the decision that it would be best not to," he said.

Nybladh said he made the decision to start school late at about 5 a.m. after going through the "very comprehensive process" of getting input from advisers and checking the forecasts that he relies on during each stormy winter day.

But he said opinions often are split -- especially among parents -- about his final decisions. He said it ultimately comes down to making a "judgment call" after weighing the safety of students and staff with the necessity to provide continuity to their education.

"I've been making these calls for 23 years as a superintendent in North Dakota and Minnesota," he said. "Not everyone universally agrees with those decisions."

Still, Nybladh said he only got four phone calls and two e-mails from parents offering their opinion about his decision on Tuesday.


"The very vast majority of our parents and our staff know and understand what we're in for when Old Man Winter rears his head," he said.

And even though Nybladh and Pace have the authority to call off classes for the day, declaring a snow day doesn't mean they get a break from work.

Nybladh said he starts his work day at 3 a.m. on stormy days and gets to the office "extra early."

And Pace didn't spend the day relaxing while East Grand Forks students enjoyed their unexpected break from classes.

"We're busy here in the district office working right along."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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