Global warming affects school

Sophia Timm-Blow, Staff Reporter

To many students, nothing is better than waking up in the middle of a winter night only to discover that they don’t have to go to school that day. As a result of worsening climate change, these days in winter might become more common.
Global warming is causing a phenomenon known by scientists as “winter whiplash,” in which there are unpredictable and extreme shifts in the weather, often over a shorter period of time.
Scientists do not know exactly why winters are getting more extreme. They theorize that it’s because rapidly warming temperatures in the arctic destabilize the polar vortex, the mass of swirling, frigid air in the Arctic regions.
When the polar vortex is stable, weather conditions are generally normal.
An unstable polar vortex affects the jet stream, a band of strong air currents encircling the globe, and brings intense arctic temperatures to warmer regions.
This means that despite an average global increase in temperature, extreme winter weather is rising currently in historically more temperate regions.
Precipitation patterns are also predicted to become more extreme, rapidly swinging between wet and dry weather. This also means that precipitation events will become more intense, causing heavier rain and snow in contrast to prolonged droughts.
There will also be more extreme shifts between freezing and thawing, which can cause flooding and vegetation damage.
This winter whiplash directly affects the Okemos school district. Winters seem to be increasingly harsh with more and more snow days, as evidenced by last year when we had nine school cancellations over the course of the winter.
“We’re seeing more of those winters that have maybe even less snow but more of an ice or icy drizzle … We saw more of that last year, which we hadn’t seen as much in prior years,” John Hood, the superintendent of Okemos Schools, said.
“It’s too soon to say whether that is a result of climate change or not, as we look at climate as weather over time, so we’re monitoring that and we’re concerned because forecasts seem to be trending that way, [with] periods of extreme weather,” Hood said.
According to most weather forecasts, this winter is supposed to be bad again with heavy precipitation and alternating periods of mild temperatures and extreme cold.
While the prospect of a bad winter with many days off is exciting to many, it also poses serious challenges to the school district in terms of trying to balance time at school with the safety of its students.
“For us, the concerns with the forecast are mainly three things: number one is ice, number two is snow, and then when we have prolonged periods of low windchill like we did last year, [with temperatures] 20 below or colder… It really all revolves around the health and safety of students either standing at the bus stop, walking to and from school, self transporting with driving for students at the high school, and then certainly our buses and parents driving,” Hood said.
Danielle Tandoc (Science) has a fairly relaxed view of snow days.
“I love snow days, but I don’t love snow days when it’s like five in a row and then five more ina row. I hate that because it just throws everything off, but everyone needs a snow day once in a while,” Tandoc said.
Most students enjoy their time off as well.
“I love [snow days]. They’re the greatest things ever,” George Meng (10) said.
“Hopefully, [we get] more days [off] than last year, but I could also see the school trying to give us less because of how many we had last year,” Audrey Hirchert-Walton (10) said.
The prospect of many snow days does pose the question of how to make up that time in the case that we have too many days off.
In Okemos, we have a limit of six snow days.
Last year we had nine, but the school district was able to appeal to the state of Michigan’s legislature and receive forgiveness for some of the days because of the extreme nature of the weather events. One time the governor even declared a state of emergency, further stressing the need for forgiveness.
In the case that the state didn’t forgive excess snow days, the school district would have to add additional instructional time in order to meet the required amount of days students have to go to school.
“I wouldn’t really like to have extra days, but I feel like we have the capability to do extra days in the summer [if we needed to because] we have air conditioning,” Hirchert-Walton said.
Sometimes people do not enjoy snow days because of the academic pressure it brings from having to catch up on work missed due to the time off. Last year many teachers and students were stressed when we had four days off in a row and then two days off the following week.
“I think [the extent of stress] depends on the student. AP students get stressed out. AP teachers get stressed too… I think your regular [general education] student doesn’t stress,” Tandoc said.
“Snow days don’t really affect [my academic performance]. I just get more sleep,” Meng said.
It can be a struggle to manage all of that time off. Tandoc shares her opinion of what teachers should do.
“If we have multiple [snow days] in a row, Google Classroom is probably the way to go. [Teachers can] film a little bit of stuff, post it, say these are the things you need to do and then you can do it on your own time,” Tandoc said.
Another potential way to deal with the bad weather in the winter could be to move towards year-round school. A more flexible schedule would have a longer winter break to potentially avoid some of the bad weather and have more school days during nicer weather.
“In Okemos with our bond passing by our community, we’re going to have air conditioning in all our schools, which will allow us to have that conversation and see where our community, our students and staff are on that idea… It certainly is one potential idea to address [the issue],” Hood said.
Although the future of our world is uncertain because of climate change, the Okemos school district will continue to adapt and problem-solve to cope with the effects of extreme weather.
“It is the ultimate responsibility [to ensure] the safety of our sons and daughters that are being sent to our school system by their parents and guardians. There’s nothing more foundational than that responsibility, and I take that very seriously,” Hood said.
“I want parents and students to be encouraged to make the decision that they think is in the best interests of their child for that day… I will make the best decision I can, airing on the side of certainly keeping our students safe, but if I’m ever disagreed with, I welcome that from parents because I know they have the best interests of their child at heart,” Hood said.