Meredith C. Carroll: Aspen School District’s Olympic-size gaffe
U.S. men’s figure skater Nathan Chen splattered disastrously into 17th place and out of medal contention after the short program Friday at the Gangneung Ice Arena at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic games. While his calamitous performance will easily be the gauge by which future failures are measured, he still fared slightly better last week than the Aspen School District’s decision makers.
Thanks to Policy EBCE, which the school district quietly formalized in June, “all 12 month employees (i.e. administrators, administrative assistants, custodians, technology and maintenance personnel), except for teachers and personnel who work only on teacher work days or on student days, unless otherwise notified shall be required to report to work as soon as possible on school closings and emergency days.”
And sure enough, guess where Aspen’s principals, secretaries and a handful of other staff members were during Feb. 15’s district-wide snow day? At work, where their presence was required — and not only if snow threatens to decimate the building and they magically have the powers to prevent that from happening — but “as soon as possible,” based on the policy.
Staff members who may have been unclear how Policy EBCE applied to snow days received clarification via an internal email sent late in the day Feb. 14, including what to do if they had dependents at home as a result of the snow day: “If you have children and cannot find child care for that day (the preschool will be closed), you can bring them in with you.”
That means the same kids for whom school closed due to unsafe conditions were told to go ahead and come on in with their working parents Thursday, which also is the day when the Aspen Police Department responded to 14 accidents and 33 weather-related calls — and that was just between 6:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. By the end of the day shift, the APD racked up 22 motorist assists and 19 vehicles crashes. While school district superintendent John Maloy pointed out in an email that supermarkets, restaurants and the hospital thrived that day, along with area mountains, it would be unusual in a resort town for the businesses that benefit from snow to close up shop as a result of it (unless they’re invoking the Six-Inch Rule).
The Police Department issued a statement on its Facebook page regarding the seriousness of the adverse driving conditions: “Snow days happen because weather has made travel difficult enough that the school decided it’s not safe for your kids to go. So if it is not safe enough for professional bus drivers, maybe you should consider whether it is safe enough for you.”
Later they posted a new message, perhaps targeted at anyone who figured previous warnings were directed at other, less-skilled drivers: “DON’T DRIVE. Really, unless you absolutely have to.”
A variety of factors are considered when deciding to close school, including how much snow has fallen, how much more is expected to fall, road conditions and the long distance many staff members must travel to work. Per Maloy, staff members expected to work had the option of taking a personal or unpaid day Thursday, even if one source said “No one said anything about a choice … not to me or anyone else.”
Of course it’s entirely plausible the school district knows something no one else does about the superhero-like abilities of its administrative staff and their children when driving in conditions already deemed unsafe for other, less-invincible faculty and kids. And it’s totally reasonable for the district to deem it absolutely necessary to have specific staff on hand to maintain sidewalks and parking lots, prevent pipes from freezing and tend to additional snow-day essentials.
But surely a plan already exists for when extreme weather falls on weekends and holidays whereby a skeleton crew comes in to ensure the integrity of the campus. And presumably that doesn’t include making secretaries, principals and other non-maintenance staff report to work — with children in tow.
The district has a bushel full of explanations about how the snow-day policy needs to be the way it is due to calendars and contracts, some of which are easier than others to find in writing. What’s missing, though, is the human element. It’s not as if Aspen sees a lot of school cancellations due to weather, but like extended summer breaks and discounted lunches, snow days are one of the few perks that typically accompany the generally unsexy and famously less-than-lucrative careers in education. Besides, taking away the ability to relish a snow day while living in a ski town seems antithetical to one of the core values that attracts people to the Aspen community.
As one school employee said, the policy is a “total morale sucker.”
Unfortunately, there’s already ample evidence that educators regularly put themselves in harm’s way just by virtue of showing up to work. Those same professionals shouldn’t also have to fear for their safety before even getting there.
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.
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