With a deep freeze predicted for most of the Midwest this last week of January, many Champaign-Urbana area parents, teachers and kids are wondering: will school be canceled?
As of Sunday night, the National Weather Service’s forecast for Wednesday, Jan. 31 in Champaign-Urbana is foreboding: “Mostly sunny and cold, with a high near -6. West wind 14 to 16 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.”
The Champaign-Urbana area experienced widespread school closings due to cold weather during the winter of 2014, the last time the polar vortex visited the Midwest, although closures due to cold have happened as recently as 2018.
If the weather this week is as dire as predicted, the double whammy of sub-zero temps and high winds could lead to potentially dangerous conditions. The wind chill index under those conditions will dip under well under -20 (more on that later).
The decision to cancel school generally is in the hands of the district superintendents, and it’s not one that they take lightly. For some children, school may be the one of the few places where they feel safe. For some children, school is where they receive two nutritious meals per day.
Almost all factors involved when considering school closures are based around the safety of students. They include looking at road conditions and transportation issues, building conditions, and most significantly when it comes to cold days, wind chill – or more precisely, the wind chill index.
Most schools in the Champaign-Urbana area do not have formal policies regarding cold weather closures. In cold weather states such as Michigan and Minnesota, it’s not uncommon for districts to have a standard policy that school will be closed when the wind chill index hits a certain level, such as -15, -20 or -25.
The National Weather Service calculates the wind chill index using two factors: wind speed in miles per hour and temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.
“The wind chill index helps you determine when dangerous conditions develop that could lead to frostbite or hypothermia. It takes into account heat loss from the human body to its surroundings during cold and windy weather,” says the NWS website.
Conditions that could lead to frostbite in less than 30 minutes concern school administrators, since that could pose a clear danger to children walking to and from school – as well as those who walk and wait at bus stops.
Champaign Unit 4 Schools, the area’s largest school district with more than 10,000 students, has its winter weather policy available on its website. If Unit 4 decides to close schools for the day due to inclement weather, the decision will be made by 6 a.m. The district has posted this guide of how it evaluates cold:
Closing School Due to Excessive Cold: (Chart via Unit 4 website)
Wind Chill 0 to -20 School open
Wind Chill -21 to -32 School may be open
Wind Chill Under -32 School will close
Neither Mahomet-Seymour Community Schools nor Urbana Schools 116 publish detailed policies regarding weather-related closings. Mahomet-Seymour has one document regarding weather that states “The Board has authorized the Superintendent to close the schools in the event of hazardous weather or other emergencies which endanger the safety of students, staff, or school property.”
Urbana’s website has info regarding how it informs families of closings, but doesn’t outline the process of making such decisions.
Many parents recognize that school administrators have a difficult decision to make.
“I would love to know how many kids are left without adequate supervision and missing meals if they cancel,” said Jody Cook, a Champaign parent with children in elementary and middle school. “I understand not wanting kids to stand at bus stops but without knowing how many parents are put in the position of choosing work or kids, it’s tough to say that canceling is truly the best choice.”
Editor’s Note: Chambanamoms.com will be tracking school closings for Wednesday. We use first-hand sources, such as news releases or school social media posts, to create our list. Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org