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School or no school?

Published December 17. 2013 05:00PM

Predicting the weather is a science; making decisions based on weather predictions is a wintry mix of science and teamwork.

At best, it's a slippery slope, according to school administrators. Panther Valley School District Superintendent Rosemary Porembo started watching Tuesday's predicted storm Sunday night.

"Some storms are easier to call than others, but the ones that start in the morning hours are the trickiest," Porembo said Monday afternoon.

She had just checked the most recent weather updates from a myriad of sources, including television newscasts, websites, the Weather Channel and fellow superintendents from around the area.

"I'm already working on Tuesday's storm, which is supposed to be in Pittsburgh by 10 p.m. Monday and in Harrisburg by 1 a.m."

Porembo said that when sources predict a storm, her day starts at 4 a.m. First, she'll check to see if the storm is following its predicted track.

"The critical time to know is when the storm starts because that's usually when conditions are worst, when the roads are the worst," Porembo explained. "I call four contacts in the other four school districts in Carbon County and get reports from them as we all work together to make our decisions."

Tamaqua Area School District Superintendent Carol Makuta faces a similar schedule. For her the decision may come a little earlier, since the first student pickup by bus occurs in West Penn Township at 5:55 a.m. In Panther Valley, by comparison, the first student is picked up at 6:45.

"We have a widespread area to cover the students who take a bus to school, including Rush and West Penn townships, and the Owl Creek area," Makuta said. "I can't depend on any one source, and I can't do it alone."

Makuta relies on a chain of Tamaqua administrators who begin checking with each other around 4 a.m. The decision whether or not to delay the start of school, or cancel, is not one made lightly, she said.

"We are sensitive to the inconveniencing caused by changes in the school schedule," she added. "The decision is based on the weather conditions with the primary concern being the safety of the students."

Parents sometimes complain to a district when the start of school is delayed or when the students get an early dismissal. Makuta recently posted a letter of explanation about school delays and closings on the district's website.

In her letter, Makuta touched on some other conditions that administrators consider. For example, travel conditions that are hazardous for bused students is also hazardous for high school students who drive to school. Also, school parking lots may not be clear, and temperature and wind chill conditions may be dangerous for those students who walk to school.

Porembo said the best administrators can do is gather as much information as they can and check on weather conditions as they occur.

"The bottom line for us is the safety of students and employees," she said. "We try to make the best decision that we can, but let's face it it's the weather."

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