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Rationale for canceling classes puts safety first: An op-ed from Dr. Paul Cruz

As published in the Austin American-Statesman.

When forecasts of winter weather and hazardous road conditions force the school district to delay start times or close for the day, the first thing Austin school district leaders think about is how the decision will affect our students and families.

We know some of our students may not be able to eat breakfast and that all of our students will miss crucial instruction time. We also are mindful that the majority of our parents and guardians must work and that they count on our schools to care for their children.
When our emergency management team and I make a decision to start school two hours late or not at all, we do so because we believe we have no other choice.

To do otherwise would be to roll the dice with the safety of our school communities — which include 85,000 students and their families and 12,000 teachers and team members who live throughout Austin’s metropolitan area.

Many times, the Austin district will need to make decisions on short notice. Last year’s winter storms caused icy roads, plunging temperatures, and sleet and snow throughout Central Texas. We rely on the National Weather Service and local meteorologists, who have cautioned us that even several hundredths of an inch of rain can freeze on exposed surfaces.

Sometimes, inclement weather forecasts are clear. Often, they are not. Sometimes, we can make informed decisions the night before weather is expected to worsen. Often, we cannot. In each instance, we must rely on the best information available at the time.

Some community members may question the school district’s decision to delay or cancel classes with observations about the weather conditions in their neighborhood as they begin their daily commutes.

The reality, though, is that the Austin district must make decisions for citywide operations that start long before the sun rises. We are prepared to make decisions about road conditions by 4 a.m. to ensure transportation employees will be able to drive safely to work to begin their bus routes. Food service workers and custodians must be able to drive safely to more than 120 schools to prepare campuses well before the first bell rings.

We also make decisions about weather and road conditions throughout the day and well into the evening. We review operational needs and realities, including law enforcement, emergency management, transportation, facilities, food services, after-school programming, fine arts and athletics.

As the largest school district in the region, the Austin Independent School District would like to thank our families and the Austin community for your patience and support as we work to ensure the safety of our school communities with as little disruption as possible.

We also would like to thank the partners who work with us to monitor weather situations and coordinate decision-making, including the city of Austin, Travis County, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Community College, fellow school districts and many others.

We wish we had a crystal ball to tell us exactly what the weather and road conditions will be at any given time. Instead, we must rely on the most up-to-date weather forecasts to anticipate weather and road conditions.

Weather can be unpredictable, and winter in Central Texas can bring a series of unexpected, yo-yo-like weather conditions. We have watched freezing temperatures melt into springtime within the span of a day. And we have seen roads dry by daylight only to refreeze overnight.

As we manage the uncertainty of this winter season, be assured you can count on one thing: When we make decisions, we will always place the safety of our students first.