When Gov. Chris Christie this weekend declared a state of emergency for New Jersey in the face of Hurricane Sandy and bluntly told residents to make smart decisions and keep safe, there was one area where he had to hold his tongue: school closures.
“While I want all the decisions regarding whether schools are open tomorrow to be made at the local level, I'm encouraging them to [close], especially for tomorrow,” he said at a Sunday press briefing.
“I'm not a school board member so I don't get to make that decision,” he said, “but I'd encourage everyone to not open up school tomorrow."
He got his wish. A majority of districts made the call by early evening to close for at least Monday, and most of the rest were expected to do so by the end of the night.
Christie announced at about 7 p.m. that 460 of 590 districts had called off classes for tomorrow, and 276 of those would also be dark Tuesday. All of Gloucester, Mercer, and Salem county schools were to be closed tomorrow, he said.
But the call to close or stay open is not the governor's to make, and that speaks to the power of local control in New Jersey education. Even during a hurricane of unprecedented severity, the decision still rests with the local school boards and superintendents.
And that can put supers in a difficult situation. They're called on to play emergency management expert, meteorologist, and fortuneteller a few times a year, typically during winter storms.
The decision starts and ends with the safety of students and staff, superintendents say, many issues must be weighed -- from the state of facilities to the viability of bus transportation to the potential dangers of walking to school.
The specific status of school buildings and whether they are needed as evacuations shelters must also be considered. When multiple snow days have already eaten into the school calendar, the call can get even trickier. But superintendents will always say that they err on the side of calling the day off, if there is any question. Most of the time they guess right, they say.
Ridgewood schools made the call midafternoon yesterday, not a terribly difficult one this time considering the situation. They will be closed both today and tomorrow, with Wednesday to be decided.
“We were cancelling games already last week,” said Daniel Fishbein, the superintendent. “This one looks pretty bad.”
Freehold Regional High School district made the decision on Saturday, sitting in a particularly vulnerable place near the shore but also serving one of the state’s most far-flung districts.
Hurricane Irene and the freak Halloween snowstorm two months later provided all the lessons that were needed.
“To be as prepared as possible and to communicate to local and state officials to make an early call,” said Charles Sampson, Freehold’s superintendent. “We serve as potential evacuation sites, so there is an added sense of urgency when making a call.”
“Always, we err on the side of caution,” he added. “I am fearful that given the vast size of my district, we will be dealing with the storm impact well beyond Tuesday.”
In Burlington Township, superintendent Christopher Manno laid out an extensive process that started Saturday in meetings with the local emergency management officials.
“Based on information provided, we determined that the wind speeds predicted for Monday and Tuesday would be unsafe for bus travel,” Manno said in an email.
He described a “Situation Appraisal” that looked at every facet of the district’s operation, from building and grounds to technology and payroll.
“We deployed sandbags to appropriate areas of schools,” Manno wrote, “planned a technology shutdown to protect our network, boarded windows as appropriate, determined generator capacity for freezers and refrigerators to maintain food supplies, and planned other details.”
Right now, Newark, the state’s largest district, has only closed for Monday, with a decision on Tuesday to come during the day. It was among a handful of districts that took an especially hard hit from last year’s double dose of bad weather, when it was forced to close one of its schools for the bulk of the year due to water damage.
This year’s weather will have a political impact, too, since the district’s teachers were to vote today on a proposed contract that would have established the first large-scale performance bonuses in the state.
That will now have to wait, with the vote moved to the next day that schools will be open, potentially Tuesday or Wednesday.
Aside from that, the district’s emergency response team weighed all the options and the various factors with each building, and superintendent Cami Anderson decided by mid-afternoon.
“Given they declared a state of emergency in both the state and city, and the roads would be closed, with NJ Transit shut, the PATH shut, it just wouldn’t be safe to have people out,” said Renee Harper, the district’s spokeswoman.
Still, the district decided not to call for Tuesday yet, with a reappraisal on Monday. “We didn’t want to jump the gun and say Tuesday as well,” she said. “We’ll have to see.”