It’s just past 6 a.m. on a snowy, dark, January morning. Looking out their kitchen windows to see how much snow is on the ground, families of Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) students, and employees of PUSD and Plumas County Office of Education (PCOE) across the county are getting notified by phone, text, and email whether school will be in session, delayed, or canceled due to the storm.
Long before families and staff are notified of the day’s school status, members of PUSD’s administrative team have been up, working on collecting information needed to make a decision. In a district with four distinct regions and weather patterns, each school site may be experiencing different conditions that need to be assessed, and a standard operating procedure has been developed to efficiently gather, record, and analyze data points from each region.
Starting before 5 a.m., “I text with seven people from across the county to find out what everything really looks like,” said Transportation Supervisor Kyle Bakker. “Because even with our modern weather prediction models, what actually happens can be very different! I want to know how much snow is on the ground, and also what kind of snow is it — Wet? Fluffy? Wet and then frozen?” This helps him understand what the driving conditions will be for his bus drivers.
Bakker said he also uses the CalTrans online map to see posted road conditions, looks at live-feed webcams from around the county, and also checks, via internet, a particular outside security camera at Portola Jr/Sr High School. “This camera happens to show a picnic table, and by looking at how high the snow is on it, I can gauge how much snow has actually accumulated on campus, even though I’m in Quincy,” he said.
Ray Bakker (yes, same last name), Maintenance and Operations Supervisor for PUSD, says the key issues that he and his staff look at are if the power and heating systems are functioning, and if the snow removal around the site is providing a safe area for students and staff to arrive on campus. “I can check in with our heating system remotely from my office,” Bakker said, “but I always want to confirm with our people on site what the conditions are.” Snow removal by PUSD staff and contracted operators starts happening by 3 a.m. in each community.
PUSD Superintendent Terry Oestreich says, “I’m starting around 5 a.m. to gather information from a variety of online resources like the CalTrans map, updates from CHP and the Sheriff’s Office on accidents and road safety, and also with staff in different parts of the county.” Oestreich logs the data into a spreadsheet to determine what should happen in each community. “Ray, Kyle, and I will get on a conference call and report out on all we’ve heard and read so far that morning,” Oestreich explained. “The factors we consider in each of the communities are weather at that time of day (snow, ice, and possible flooding), road conditions (highway, in town, and outlying areas), temperatures, cloud cover (if power outage and classrooms at 60 or above), forecast, power outages, heating systems, and if school parking lots and surrounding area are plowed.”
“Keeping in mind that safety for students, families, and staff is our priority, and based on the information we have available at that time, we come to a consensus on that day’s school status and let school principals know by 6 a.m. so that they can start reaching out to their communities,” said Oestreich. Although sometimes the day turns out differently from what was predicted, “we have a commitment to making a decision by 6 a.m. because people need to know what’s happening so they can plan for their day,” Oestreich said.