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Snow fort

Tristan Cota, 13, lies inside his snow fort as Cameron Cota, 16, builds up the ceiling of the structure in January 2017 in their front yard in Twin Falls. 

TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school officials are crossing their fingers, hoping for less snow this year.

It was an extreme winter last year, and many schools were closed for at least five days — and even two weeks in some communities.

It led to headaches for school officials, such as leaky roofs and flooding, hazardous road conditions, and figuring out if they needed to make up school hours. After experiencing the largest number of snow days since the 1990s, school leaders say they’re gearing up for winter earlier and are making changes — a result of lessons learned.

One of the biggest takeaways was making sure there’s a good system to notify parents of snow days.

“We’re trying to encourage parents to make sure they’re signed up for our emergency notification system so if we do have a snow day, they get the word as early as possible so they can prepare for it,” Jerome School District Superintendent Dale Layne said.

It may seem like a premature conversation since there isn’t snow on the ground right now, but it’s still early in the season. Last year, “it really hit us hard in January and February,” Kimberly School District Superintendent Luke Schroeder said.

On days when inclement weather is expected, Schroeder talks with the school district’s transportation director. He personally gets up in the middle of the night to drive on Kimberly roads. He participates in group text messages with other area superintendents starting around 4 a.m. about road conditions and whether they’re canceling school. He looks at weather maps and forecasts.

It’s a similar process in many school districts and it includes conversations with city, county, busing and highway district officials. Superintendents decide early whether to cancel school. In Kimberly, that’s 5:30 a.m.

It’s a tough, stressful decision. And whatever Schroeder decides, he ends up second guessing himself all day.

“I just hope people appreciate how difficult it is to make that decision if you’re going to have school or not,” he said.

Here’s a look at how four of the Magic Valley’s school districts are preparing for the winter:

Twin Falls

As Twin Falls School District Superintendent Brady Dickinson reflected Thursday on last winter, he said: “First off, I think last year was probably an anomaly.”

Many years, the district doesn’t have any snow days — or just one or two. It doesn’t tend to have as many as rural school districts, which often run into more issues with drifting snow.

One lesson learned, though, came during the first snowstorm last winter. The school district excused a handful of students in a rural area. There were poor road conditions and school buses couldn’t run, but roads were clear in the city.

Based on community feedback, “that’s not something we’ll do again,” Dickinson said. There will be only all-or-nothing closures this year.

And unlike some neighboring districts, the Twin Falls district aims to avoiding closing school early or delaying start times.

The school district’s maintenance department has its seven snow plows ready to go. “But we’re not anticipating anything before Christmas,” director of operations Ryan Bowman said.

Regardless of whether there are snow days this year, parents are encouraged to keep their children home if they feel road conditions are unsafe, Dickinson said.

There’s a common misconception the decision to have class is a way to avoid losing state money, Dickinson said, but it’s based on student safety. If school is closed, the school district can declare an emergency closure and not be impacted financially.

But educators hate to lose instructional time, Dickinson said. Also, “we know that when we don’t have school, it puts a burden on parents” who have to find childcare.

Jerome

The Jerome School District’s maintenance department has already been preparing for winter, including making sure snow plows are on trucks and ready to go.

“They just got an earlier start on prepping the equipment,” Superintendent Dale Layne said.

Maintenance crews also reserved a large loader to rent in case there’s heavy snow. Last year, they didn’t have the equipment they needed and it was hard to find.

Another change this year is a way for parents of elementary schoolers to use a mobile application to track whether school buses are running late if there’s snow.

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The school district implemented a program called Z Pass this fall. It allows about 1,300 elementary schoolers who ride a school bus to use an electronic card to check on and off the bus.

Something else that may help this winter is new roofs on two school buildings — the old section of Jerome High School and at Jefferson Elementary School — which were installed this summer.

That was just part of regular building maintenance, not specifically a response to last year’s winter.

“Hopefully, we don’t have the leaks we had last year,” Layne said.

Kimberly

Last year’s winter played a role in developing this year’s school calendar in Kimberly — ensuring there’s enough extra instructional time built in to accommodate snow days.

“I think that was in the back of our minds as we made up the calendar this year,” Schroeder said.

The school district also bought another snow plow. Now, it has two and also uses tractors for snow removal. Last year, the district ended up borrowing some equipment from a community member.

Another project is looking at how to alleviate drainage issues, which surfaced last winter at a couple of school buildings.

Repairs will be made within the next couple of weeks to improve drainage at Kimberly High School‘s agriculture shop.

Last winter, water was coming from asphalt on the east end of Kimberly Elementary School‘s playground back into a school building. That won’t be addressed until the school is remodeled after the new elementary school opens in fall 2018, Schroeder said. “One of priorities when we start renovating that school is to make sure there’s proper drainage.”

Buhl

The Buhl School District doesn’t plan to make changes this year to prepare for winter, Superintendent Ron Anthony wrote in an email Wednesday to the Times-News. But he joked they’re doing a “no-snow dance.”

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