So when should schools close for the cold? There are no national rules dictating when schools should close for weather-related reasons, and local health departments can only make recommendations to districts.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics says in this weather advice post:
There are no national or professional standards for temperature or other weather conditions that preclude sending children outside for recess. Individual school districts often give decision-making authority to individual school principals, and the results vary widely. Students in northern Minnesota who can be expected to be dressed appropriately for cold weather may be sent out with the temperature at -15F, while students in Florida may be kept in when the temperature approaches 40-50F. Other factors, such as wind and precipitation, must also be taken into account.
Indeed, some cities handle snow and cold temperatures better than others. The greater Washington D.C. region just got hit with between three and six inches of snow, where it felt like 26 degrees Fahrenheit, and schools closed. In Syracuse, N.Y., where it felt like negative 2 degrees Fahrenheit, schools were open on Tuesday, though they did close on Feb. 14 when the temperatures were forecast to drop to about 15-20 degrees below zero.
Chicago schools sometimes close for frigid temperatures, such as on Jan. 6- 7, when the National Weather Service said temperatures would dip, with wind chill, to as low as 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The schools opened the next day, however, without much change in temperature. A Chicago lawyer named Williama Choslovsky wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune mocking the schools for closing when Milwaukee schools stayed open with most frigid temperatures, saying,
Consider this the continued wussification of society. … Our kids can go to school. Considering that so few even walk anymore, what difference does the temperature make? That Jenny and Johnnie may actually stand at the bus stop shivering for all of 10 minutes? Who cares? Frankly, it’s good for the pups.
Good for the pups?
In Boston, the cold temperatures have been accompanied by unprecedented snowfall of at least six feet in the last several weeks, and schools have closed for eight days so far because of the extreme cold and the snow. The home page of the Boston Public Schools Web site is devoted to the weather and its effect on school openings and closing:
In the last three weeks, Boston has experienced an unprecedented amount of snow and we anticipate more snow during the week ahead. Given this, and the need to ensure that we are able to safely re-open all schools on Monday, February 23, we have made the difficult decision to cancel nearly all programming for the rest of the week.
In New York, WKBW quoted Bret Apthorpe, superintendent of the Frontier Central School District, as saying that a wind chill of negative 25 degrees Fahrenheit is the point when many schools are closed.
School districts have a number of considerations, including state student attendance requirement and commuting issues (such as how long students have to wait outdoors for a bus, whether roads are passable by car and whether public transportation is working), as well as health dangers posed by the cold and the condition of old and sometimes crumbling school buildings. Many districts are also concerned about students who only eat meals at school and who have working parents or guardians who can’t stay home with them. In a story about potentially record-breaking low temperatures, the Chicago Tribune said,
Elana Porat, a fourth-grade teacher at Namaste Charter School in McKinley Park, said she isn’t concerned about hypothermia or frostbite for herself — but she worries about some of the kids she teaches and their families. “It’s definitely a risk — people have to work and get to their jobs,” Porat said. “Not everyone has a car, not everyone has the ability to buy a really nice down coat.”
Frostbite, which causes permanent damage to tissue and can be fatal, occurs at different temperatures and wind speeds, as you can see in this charter from the National Weather Service.
Early this year, the Department of Public Health in Monroe County, N.Y., sent this letter to superintendents with cold-weather advice for when to close schools:
There is a related question: When is it too hot to go to school in an un-air-conditioned building, but at least in the Northern regions of the United States, that seems like a question best saved for another season.