With a winter storm approaching southern Wisconsin, schools are preparing for a virtual learning day as snow days pile on.
The Madison Metropolitan School District, or MMSD, sent an email to parents Wednesday to remind students to bring home Chromebooks and materials for the possibility of a remote school day on Friday.
MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds said the district works to build in additional instructional minutes before every school year in anticipation of snow days, but this year has been busy. He said officials start to get worried if there's 4 or more inches of snow or ice.
"What has made this difficult for every school district is (there have) been these winter storms that are right on the threshold," LeMonds said Thursday afternoon. "They've been really hard calls to make, and there's so many different things that we consider."
Where a typical year sees a couple of snow days, the district has seen four, and now anticipates a fifth. After two days, he said, officials have to get creative to make up lost time.
"We do everything that we can to avoid having to disrupt family's plans at the end of the school year by tacking on more school days," he said.
LeMonds said safety is top of mind for officials and the primary factor taken into consideration.
Still, he said going virtual is not an easy decision to make, in part because even as the district made progress in providing access to technology and internet service to students throughout the pandemic, there are still gaps that can create or exacerbate inequalities.
"But now we're in this situation where we've had so many of these, that it is now a viable option when you're weighing it against the impact on the school district the other way by adding additional days towards the end of the school year," he said.
LeMonds said a large network of people — including city, county and transportation officials — meet at 4 a.m. the morning a snow day is called. They speak directly with local meteorologists and other school district leaders to make a recommendation. The superintendent makes the final decision.
"It's easy to just look out the window and say, 'Well, there's 3 inches of snow. Yeah, they could have had school that day,'" he said. "I think it's important to remember that we're making these decisions based on the safety of our students and staff far in advance of that weather."
He said the district is communicating with every school, teachers and principals to prepare them for the potential of a virtual school day — including setting up Zoom calls and adjusting lesson plans.
JJ Wood, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Milwaukee-Sullivan station, said the state will see moderate to heavy snow move northeast into the area and spread across the rest of southern Wisconsin Thursday evening until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Friday morning. Light snowfall will linger and taper off Friday afternoon, he added.
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Southeast Wisconsin could see between 4 and 7 inches of snow, Wood said, which could fall at a rate of about a half inch to 1 inch per hour.
"This will cause reduced visibilities, maybe down to a half mile or so and accumulating snow on the roads and make for hazardous travel conditions, especially in Southeast Wisconsin — we're expecting some heavier snowfall," Wood said.
Wood said that in most of the state, wind gusts could reach up to 30 mph.
"It will affect the Friday morning commute to some extent, especially on the untreated roads. The heaviest rates will be overnight, so by the morning commute period, it might be more of a lighter snow that's going on, especially in the Madison area. However, it'll still probably be a slow go," he said.
Bryan Johnson, the public information officer for the Madison Streets Division, said residents can expect the roads to be slippery Thursday night and Friday.
"What we've had a lot this winter, which seems a little unusual, is like really wet, dead snow that seems to be falling after we've had days where it's been above freezing," he said.
The street division will have about 32 trucks out covering 862 lane miles.
But like many weather events, there remains a lot of uncertainty, Johnson said. He advised people to anticipate stops or turns to avoid sliding into a car ahead and not to feel the need to rush or speed.
"We don't know how much melting we're going to see when it starts coming down because the pavement temperatures are relatively warm, so how much is ultimately going to stick on the road by morning when the storm ramps up? We really don't know that piece yet," Johnson said.
He said the city will announce Friday morning if it needs to cancel trash and recycling pickup.
"The school district doesn't have that kind of luxury. Getting kids to school — they can't wait till like 6:30 a.m. in the morning to make that decision — it's a lot harder for them," he said.
LeMonds of MMSD agreed.
"I am just praying that the weatherman is getting it wrong," he said. "We don't want to switch to virtual — we just want to have another school day, just like every day, but we'll be prepared if that isn't the case."