Extreme Temperatures, On-Time School Openings, Put Children At Risk

The decision to open schools on time for many Baltimore-area systems (Frederick, Carroll, Howard, and Montgomery; Baltimore County had planned an on-time opening but delayed classes for two hours due to a “facilities heating issue”) caused an oft-heated debate via social media between parents, students, and community members.

For full disclosure, I am a teacher of 26 years here in the state of Maryland. I attended Baltimore County public schools, graduated from two local colleges, and now teach in one county school system and lecture at a local university. I am deeply entrenched in the ways of Maryland weather and our school systems.

As well, I am a father of three children, ages 9, 12, and 17; the youngest we home school, and the two older children (both girls) attend public school. With the exception of a 3-year stint in a Montessori school when our oldest daughter was 3 — 5 years of age, both girls have spent their entire school-aged years in public school.

For further disclosure, my wife and I do not raise “wimpy” children. We provide them many opportunities to experience independence, where they take risks, feel failure, and learn from both positive and negative outcomes.

I am a lover of many things, including meteorology. The science of weather fascinates me, and I love to share that passion with others. Sometimes, it coincides with my love for teaching — not to mention my enjoyment for “snow days,” which do not happen very often in the Baltimore region. We tend to get very hyped around here whenever a “Winter Weather Event” is on the horizon.

Merge all three on social media: Love for weather, love for teaching, and love for the Baltimore hype, and you get a “perfect storm” of passion, energy, and excitement.

Sometimes, that spills over in to weather- and school-related events that are serious. In these last 24 hours (and in the next 12), we find ourselves in such a place.

I posted a very strong opinion that schools should be closed due to the extreme cold temperatures (you can read my complete post here). Some agreed with my perspective, and others did not. I do appreciate all of the opinions that were shared.

In reading the opinions of others, I noticed three main arguments FOR sending the children to school on time. I address them here, out of respect to my friends and colleagues.

1. The temperatures weren’t that bad. Suck it up; it’s not like we live in extreme western Maryland.

The temperatures were — and still are — very bad, and they are very dangerous. As I pointed out in my post on social media, it takes just 1 to 5 minutes for frostbite to occur on exposed skin when wind chill temperatures are below 0 degrees. The temperature in and around Baltimore this morning ranged from 0 to 3 degrees, with wind chill temperatures exceeding -18 degrees.

Yes. In western Maryland, they were even worse, where the temperature was -13 and the wind chill exceeded -39 degrees.

So, while you are correct that “it’s not like we live in extreme western Maryland” (where schools were closed), I ask you this: does the decision to open or close schools really lie in the balance between -18 and -39 degrees? I would classify both as dangerously cold enough to cause frostbite and other serious health issues within 5 minutes.

2. We are creating a society of wimps; sending them in to the cold builds character.

I am first in line when it comes to complaining about how much our children are enabled. We have created a society of immediate gratification and instant expectations.

Sending children — some even before sunrise — out into dangerous weather conditions has nothing to do with building character. The extremely low temperatures in the past 24 hours have been historic on many levels. Even if we discard the record lows, you have to go back 20 years — 1994 — to find a time when temperatures were this low.

Please stop trying to use weather events unprecedented in our children’s lifetimes to build their character. Extreme temperatures of this nature happen every 10-20 years, and our children are not equipped to handle them easily. There is nothing — not a single thing — that is gained by sending a child to a bus stop for 15-30 minutes in temperatures that can cause serious health issues.

I ask you this: How long, beyond 1-5 minutes, should our children be exposed to extreme temperatures to build their character? Is 15 minutes enough? How about 30 minutes for over 1,000 Baltimore County students who had to wait additional time for their buses, as 25 of them had mechanical issues, and there was no way to alert the children on the bus stop that they would be waiting two or three times longer than normal?

Let’s put this another way. If I want to build my 12-year-old daughter’s character, how long do you think it would take Child Protective Services to contact me if I sent her on a 2.5-mile hike across town (that’s about how far she would travel in those 30 minutes she would have spent at the bus stop) at 7:25 a.m. in temperatures that felt like -18 degrees?

At least she would be moving during those 30 minutes, unlike the children on the bus stops.

I want to know — I really do — how many adults who were outspoken about our “society of wimps” spent 30 minutes outside this morning? Even better: how many of you under-dressed the way some of our children were forced to do this morning?

That’s what I thought.

3. If you dress accordingly, you won’t have any weather-related problems.

First, we are talking about public schools and bus stops. In any school, you run the extremes of cultures and class. And, as I stated above, we live in a state that is not necessarily prepared for weather of these extremes. Our wardrobes are not adorned with sub-zero parkas and balaclavas, and for good reason: we don’t live in a climate where conditions require such heavy outerwear.

Second, we are talking about school-aged children who just don’t think too clearly at times when it comes to dressing appropriately for extreme weather. Remember– These conditions have not existed in their lifetimes. They have no experience of what -18 degrees feels like, nor do they have any experience of the dangers associated with such low temperatures. So many of our children who attend public school and who stand on bus stops just don’t practice good common sense.

You might ask, “Where are the parents? Why aren’t they taking better care of their children?” Good question. Teachers have been asking that for a long, long time regarding the care for many of our children. The truth is, though, that it can’t be placed solely on the parents. Many families have no choice but to send their children to the bus stop unsupervised. They don’t have the means to drive their children to school, or even to the bus stop where they can wait for the school bus.

The real truth in public education is that there are not “absolute” circumstances. You cannot guarantee that 100% of the children are going to be prepared for such weather, just as the county could not guarantee that 100% of their buses would operate perfectly.

This morning, 1,000 of our children experienced that non-absolute, and many of them may be experiencing the effects of being exposed to the harsh temperatures for an excessive amount of time.

I ask you: If your child comes home from school with frostbite or other health issues related to prolonged exposure in sub-zero temperatures, will you tell them to suck it up? Will you tell them that they will someday be grateful for such character building?

Save your arguments — many of which are valid — about our wimpy society when we are not talking about severe and even life-threatening issues. The extreme and rare temperatures should not be taken lightly by anybody, for any reason. The school systems put our children at great risk today, and I believe there needs to be accountability for such inaction on their behalf. It isn’t too much to ask them to defend their reasoning in leaving schools open. They owe it to the families and the communities, certainly. More importantly, they owe it to our children who they sent out in to the extreme temperatures, many of whom were waiting for buses that would arrive much later than the scheduled time, if at all.

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