TWIN FALLS — The aftermath of a winter storm is compounding problems for Magic Valley schools, from leaky roofs to hazardous road conditions.
Most schools — including in Twin Falls, Jerome, Cassia County and Minidoka County — were closed again Monday. For some, it was the third or fourth time within a week.
Children may be enjoying the time off, but the storm is creating a headache for adults. And, students may have to make up the school hours they’ve missed.
“We’re anxious to get back to the regular schedule,” said Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District.
Twin Falls mom Lynn Nelson has used paid time off work to stay home with her children on days when school is canceled.
She works at Walgreens and “you’re expected to be there no matter what,” she said, adding she has deadlines to meet and doesn’t get snow days.
She said she enjoys being home with her children, but “we have to get back to reality.”
If the winter storm continues, “I don’t know what I’d do,” Nelson said. “We can’t call out all winter. They need to find a solution to the problem so we can carry on with our lives.”
Normally, her first and fourth-graders go to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Magic Valley after school and over school holidays. But the club closed down a couple of times last week due to poor weather conditions.
In the meantime, her children are enjoying the break and playing with their new Christmas toys. “They don’t want to go back to school,” Nelson said.
In Hansen, schools were closed Monday and will remain closed Tuesday due a problem with the high school’s fire suppression system. Filer High School has a broken water pipe. School officials weren’t available to comment Monday.
In Burley, White Pine Elementary School flooded inside the north hall and in a teacher workroom. It was caused by melting snow that came in under the door.
There are no broken pipes, Critchfield said.
Custodians worked Monday to vacuum and clean up the water. “It only impacts one little area and shouldn’t affect students,” she said.
At this time, the district is planning to hold classes at the school.
Seven Twin Falls School District campuses — about half the total number — had roof leaks. Most were minor, Superintendent Wiley Dobbs said.
The exception: One classroom at Lincoln Elementary School filled up with about one inch of water and ceiling tiles fell onto the teacher’s desk.
“Our maintenance team got right on it,” Dobbs said. “In most cases, we’re able to clear it up ourselves.”
In Jerome, there were a couple of buildings with minor roof leaks. “Fortunately, we’re not seeing any major concerns as far as building damage,” Superintendent Dale Layne said.
He drove around north of Jerome on Monday checking road conditions. As of Monday afternoon, he was undecided on whether to cancel school for Tuesday and was planning to call the school bus contractor to talk about it.
“We’re got a couple of places where it’s down to one lane and there’s pretty deep drifts,” Layne said. Roads were passable Monday, he said, but that could change if it freezes overnight.
And a bigger question is looming: Will students have to make up the school hours they’ve missed?
Making up school hours
Twin Falls students can breathe a sigh of relief. But children in other school districts — including Cassia County and Jerome — may not be as lucky.
Each school year, Idaho public schools must meet the minimum number of instructional hours for students: 450 for kindergarten, 810 for first through third grades, 900 for fourth through eighth grades and 990 for ninth through 12th grades.
A school district can go below the minimum requirements by 11 hours for emergency school closures that are related to poor weather or facility failures.
In the Twin Falls School District — where school was canceled three times within the last week — students likely won’t have to make up time.
“We have more hours built into our calendar than most districts,” Dobbs said. “We’re in good shape.”
In Cassia County, if school is canceled any additional days this winter, the school board may consider making up time. That could include either lengthening the school year or extending each school day by about five minutes, Critchfield said.
Cassia County schools have been closed for four days within the last week. Students have been to class only once since Christmas break.
First semester was slated to end Friday. But due to school closures, the semester will be extended until Jan. 20 to allow middle and high schoolers to prepare for and take final exams next week.
In Jerome, there have been five snow days so far this school year — two before Christmas break and three after.
“If we have any snow days after today, we’ll have to start making up the time,” Layne said.
If that happens, the school board would likely have an emergency meeting and would come up with a solution that’s the “least disruptive as possible,” he said.
‘Very unusual’ storm
School officials say this winter storm — and number of school closures — is highly unusual. Most haven’t seen this many snow days since the 1990s.
“We’ve gone years where we’ve never needed to use a snow day,” Critchfield said. “Those are not things we can bank.”
Having three snow days in a week is “very unusual,” Dobbs said. He can’t recall another time with even two snow days in a row in his 14 years as superintendent.
Deciding when to cancel school
Dobbs drove on Twin Falls roads on Sunday night and again at 4:30 a.m. Monday to check the road conditions and decide whether to cancel school.
“The biggest problem were the side streets in town,” Dobbs said. “They were a slushy mess.”
Dobbs and Brady Dickinson, the school district’s operations director, are typically the ones who check road conditions. They’re in communication with each other, other school district superintendents in the region, law enforcement and Western States Bus Services.
There’s mixed feedback from parents about school cancellations, Dobbs said, and “opportunities to Monday morning quarterback.” The most important factor in deciding whether to cancel school is student safety, he said.
Last week, there was lots of criticism in Cassia County about the decisions to hold or cancel school.
Critchfield said she has seen different opinions on the school district’s Facebook page. “For school districts, it’s a no-win most of the time.”
School district officials try to notify parents by 6 a.m. at the latest. “That gives families time to make other arrangements,” she said.
But they strive to hold classes, if possible, Critchfield said. “The expectation is that we want to have school.”