Snow Days: How money play into why schools are open when it snows
by nusrat afrin, slc editor and sookhra persaud, junior writer
Snowy day hits Hillcrest in February -- Photo by Bacilio Bencosme, Photographer
This past February, the New York area saw one of the biggest snowstorms in modern history that dropped anywhere from 18 to 30 inches of snow depending on where you lived. The snowstorm was so massive that many streets in the five boroughs weren’t safe to drive. People struggled to safely dig their cars out of massive snow piles or even walk outside.
Did this stop the Board of Education from closing school, just for one day? No.
Every year, massive snow storms creates hazards for people to be outside, yet the Mayor’s office continually mandates that schools be open no matter how deep the snow is. New York City tends to have a record in avoiding school closings, over the past 13 years. Due to snowstorms, there has been only six city school closings, many Catholic schools in the city, schools in Long Island, and other regional districts close immediately while the NYC public schools remained open.
The question is why does New York City keep their schools open? Is it truly for the custodial welfare and education of nearly 1.1 million students in the New York City educational district? Or is there a deeper economic reason behind keeping school buildings open?
According to the New York City Board of Education, students are required to attend 180 days in public schools which means snow days aren’t free days. Mr. Nepal, Assistant Principal of Data, cited that on a regular school day the student attendance rate is about 87%-90% while on a snow day, the attendance goes down to below 70%.
There are nearly 80,000 teachers in the New York City school district whom the city is responsible for. If teachers take a day off, the city must pay them for a sick or personal day while hiring substitute teachers to ensure that the teacher’s class is legally covered or potentially paying Hillcrest teachers to cover classes.
According to Ms. Ziozis, Assistant Principal of Organization, during the last snow storm, January 25th, there were 23 teachers absent. “There are staff members who live in the 5 boroughs as well as Nassau County - Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey. Staff absenteeism depends on the trajectory of the storm and the amount of snow that falls in specific areas. Staff members may also take off because their children’s school district is closed and they do not have anyone to watch their children,” said Ms. Ziozis. The school struggles to cover classes during bad snowstorms due to the massive number of teacher absences which builds onto the school budget as the school covers their classrooms which costs the school $164 per teacher or $3200 a snowday out of an already tight budget.
Another potentially huge factor in dictating school openings is the holistic economic impact students and their daily spending money. Local businesses around Hillcrest High School are negatively impacted by snow days.
As snow piles up on the street, business suffers as many stores, restaurants and delis have to close down early. We talked to nearby delis and other stores to find out about the business loss from snowstorms. Rashid Ahmed, the owner of the Hilltop grocery near Hillcrest. Since there are less people on the streets, business owners get less customers when it snows than regular days. Mr. Ahmed estimates that he loses hundreds of dollars on days that it snows. “We have to close the stores early when it snows and it affects our business,” Mr. Ahmed said.
We also received a similar response from the APL Pharmacy nearby which feels the pinch of a lack of customers. “Snow and cold weather leads people to stay indoors; therefore, we don’t get as many customers as we would get on a regular day,” said Hannah Rodriguez, the Pharmacy Technician.
While economic factors may be a taboo reason for the schools to remain open, the city maintains that the common reason that schools being open is that the school serves as a custodial help for parents across the city who still have to trudge through the snow to work. Carmen Farina stated, “Many of our kids don’t get a hot lunch and, in many cases breakfast, unless they go to school. So it’s still a parent's decision whether they send their kids to school or not. My decision is where the kids are the safest and the most taken care of, and the answer is that in school.”
The NYC Department of Education provides free meals to nearly 700,000 while another 150,000 students pay for their lunch at nearly $2 per meal.
Her decision caused outrage among students and parents because of the chancellor’s explanation of kids who don’t get to eat or get a decent meal if they are not in school. The students’ safety issues leads to a big argument since the chancellor is going to be personally responsible for any injuries and deaths that may occur to school students caused by the snowstorms.
Despite how many students complain about the difficulty to get to school in snow days, the city believes there is no excuse for missing school because of the city’s extensive subway and bus systems. A few years ago when Hurricane Sandy brutally hit New York and nearby areas, schools were closed for 5 days because of the damage that occurred in the city’s transportation system which later on students had to make up during spring break. During a snowstorm, the city’s protocols are to ensure that streets are plowed for bus mobilization while efforts are made to ensure subway travel.
Back to economics, many students have Metrocards that are funded by the city, state and MTA. Student Metrocards costs the city nearly $243 million with the Board of Education covering $45 million of that cost to pay for full-fares and half-fares for many students across NYC. Each day that the school system closes is a day lost in fares because many students with half-fare Metrocards still pay to ride the transit systems. Estimates from 2010 cite that nearly 200,000 students pay half-fare with costs at nearly $900 per student per year. Simple math dictates that nearly a quarter million students paying nearly $1.50 per trip to school and then home can cost the city nearly half a million dollars each day.
The chancellor and Mayor de Blasio ultimately factor all of these variables to make a decision for the entire city. “The decision to keep Hillcrest High School open isn’t up to the principal”, said Principal Morrison. “The Board of Education talks with the Transportation Department, the NYPD, the National Weather Service and other NYC organizations to come to a smart decision on whether schools should be open or closed.” The Department of Education hesitates to close schools due to past records of schools being closed and storms going to different direction. On the other side, when schools are open, the teacher and student attendance rates are seen to be very low which does not have the best impact on the school budget for Hillcrest High School or any other schools in NYC.
In other states, where schools were announced to be closed, students are expected to make up the free days during the snow in June when books are ready to be put away while New York City school kids goes into vacation.