Many area schools had their first snow day Wednesday, Nov. 27, giving students and staff an extended holiday weekend, which got even longer after those same schools around the Twin Ports called off school for Monday, Dec. 2. How was that decision made and who has the final say? Many factors go into the call on whether to close school, but the ultimate decision is put in the hands of school district superintendents.

For Hermantown Community Schools, that person is Kerry Juntunen, who said the Hermantown School Board has given the superintendent the authority to close school, start school late or to send kids home early.

“There isn’t a superintendent in the whole world that likes making that decision,” Juntunen said. “I don’t like closing school.”

Juntunen said two things make that decision difficult: The Hermantown district has a large demographic and a large geographic area.

“On the demographic side, you have parents who it would be tough on to have their kids stay home,” he said. “On the other side of that, the geographic area, you can have two totally different storms going on between where the school sits and the area around Island Lake and Fish Lake.”

Juntunen said once there is a snow watch or warning put out by the National Weather Service, he begins monitoring the weather constantly starting the afternoon and night before the possibly affected day. Juntunen said during a storm or a potential storm he will check in with the weather service multiple times in a day, even going as far as talking to the meteorologists on the phone.

In the mornings, Juntunen and the district's transportation supervisor begin driving the roads to check the drivability. Juntunen said he usually will drive around the Island Lake and Fish Lake areas while the transportation supervisor drives the roads near the schools and in town.

“A lot of superintendents might not go out there, but when I took this job I wanted to make sure the community knew I'm out there looking out for them,” he said.

Juntunen said he has a four-wheel-truck and can get through pretty much anything, but he also thinks about how a Malibu with bad tires would be able to handle the roads he’s driving on.

“Our buses can get through anything. I never worry about that. I very much worry about the other drivers out there,” Juntunen said. “I don't want to put them in peril because we have buses that are making frequent stops and when you have those kinds of conditions, you really want to be careful about who you are putting behind your buses and think about a kid going across the road and whether or not a car could stop.”

The Duluth school district has an even larger geographic area than Hermantown. Duluth superintendent Bill Gronseth said because the district is so large there are multiple staff members who go out and drive the roads. Those staff members report back to the district’s transportation director who then informs Gronseth of what is being seen on the roads.

But just like all superintendents, Gronseth said he checks every available resource he can.

“We really try to check all of our resources, look at the radar, talk to the National Weather Service directly and ask them what their confidence is in snow amounts and start and stop times of the storm,” he said.

Gronseth said he will make a call on whether to cancel or delay school by 5 a.m. Juntunen said he tries to make a decision no later than 5:30 a.m. Both agreed it can be hard to cancel school the night before.

“Duluth's weather can be so unpredictable,” Gronseth said.

There have been many times where it will snow up on the hill but rain closer to the lake. Juntunen said he really pays attention to the weather when there is a northeast wind because Hermantown could get more snow than other parts of the area due to lake-enhanced snow.

“There can be as much as a 3-to-4-inch difference by the school than there is up by Island Lake or even to the south or west of Morris Thomas Road where I live,” Juntunen said.

Area superintendents also talk to each other in the morning. Juntunen said he will get on the phone with Gronseth and Proctor superintendent John Engelking to find out what they are thinking.

“We don't always make joint decisions, but oftentimes when one of us closes it's very difficult for the parents who work in the other districts,” Juntunen said.

Delays and early release

Superintendents may also call for a two-hour delay, which gives the city, county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation extra time to clear the roads after an overnight storm. Juntunen said a two-hour delay is preferable to closing school as it can be easier on parents than closing school for the entire day. But sending students home early is something superintendents will always try to avoid.

“The one thing I don't want to ever do is send kids home early. Sending kids home early is very, very difficult for me because sometimes you're going to be sending kids home to an empty house,” Juntunen said. “There's always that inherent fear that if you are sending kids home early, what are you sending them home to?”

Duluth schools also rarely dismiss early. A Duluth parent and staff survey indicated concerns about using early dismissal, including access to last-minute childcare and sending young children home to an empty house. Parents always have the option of picking their children up early from school during severe weather.

“We always say, parents are the best judge of the child's health and safety,” Juntunen said.