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Cold Weather Shakes Up School Routines In Montana

Ethelyn Howard, wearing a reflective yellow vest and holding a stop sign, stands on the sidewalk next to a street crosswalk.
Kay Erickson
Yellowstone Public Radio
Ethelyn Howard stands at her crossing guard post at Billings predawn on Jan. 14, 2020.

It has been a cold and snowy week for much of Montana, making it necessary for schools to change their routine.

It’s minus three degrees, with a windchill of minus 20, on the corner of Colton Boulevard and 19th Street West in Billings.

"It’s exhilarating for me," says Ethelyn Howard, a school crossing guard for Rose Park Elementary. "It gives me an excuse to get up early. It kind of takes your breath away when you first step out into it. It’s really, really cold today."

Howard says lots of layers is her secret to keeping kids safe on cold weather days.

When it’s that cold many schools urge parents remain with students as they wait for a bus or transport them to school. Or, if they must walk, to bundle up.

Schools in Montana set their own guidelines for how to treat cold weather days.

"We have a policy in place that inclusive of wind chill, if we are ever below zero degrees, we are not outside," says Nathan Schmitz, superintendent for Elder Grove School District southwest of Billings.

The district's zero-degree threshold is the one most used by schools, as is their policy of when to take a snow day.

"We make that decision with a great deal of care," Schmitz says. "There is a reality that in many cases school is a very good place for students to be even on very cold days."

For some students, school is the place where they’ll get breakfast and lunch and a warm place to stay.

"But the threshold we look at there is the safety via transportation. If the roads are not safe to be transporting across, then we do close school," he says

Schmitz says the last couple of years Elder Grove has had to take two snow days. The state education department allows just one snow day per year. Any more than that and the days have to be made up.

Many school districts, like Elder Grove, are starting to include snow days in their calendars.

"I don’t think winters are going to get any easier," Schmitz says. "I hope we all learn from the recent winters and plan accordingly moving forward because a new reality that we may see winters like this for some time to come."