When Reza Namin visits a classroom in one of Westbrook’s four elementary schools, children often recognize him for the one thing he does as superintendent that affects them directly.

One student invariably pipes up, “You’re the man who calls school off on snow days!”

While students and staff members often relish snow days as unexpected blessings, superintendents take the responsibility of canceling school very seriously. Technology has made it easier to anticipate storms and inform families about closings, but school officials still must weigh the students’ safety against the legal and logistical demands of running a school district.

Student safety remains their priority.

“I really put myself in the parents’ shoes,” Namin said. “I ask myself if I would want my child to be put at risk.”

A top consideration in calling snow days is the state law that requires public schools to hold classes at least 175 days each year. To reach that number, class days lost in winter are tacked on to the end of the school year in most districts across southern Maine.

Counting Wednesday, most districts have taken three snow days this winter. The others were Jan. 12 and 21.

Westbrook students will be in school at least through June 20. In Portland, where Superintendent Jim Morse also canceled school on Nov. 8 after a wind storm caused widespread power outages, students will be in school through June 16. School calendars vary from district to district.

“There’s no free ride,” Morse said. “The kids end up going to school at one point or another.”

Snow days lose their appeal as winter wears on and the cancellations throw off teachers’ lesson plans and test schedules. Snow days also interfere with after-school activities ranging from play rehearsals to hockey games. All of it has to be rescheduled, including the classroom time.

“Everybody likes the first snow day,” Morse said. “When you get to the fourth one, people start getting antsy because they realize they’ll be making them up in June.”

Morse said he rarely cancelled school because of snow when he was superintendent of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, where it snowed every day one February and some students rode snowmobiles to school.

After the ice storm of 1998, when Morse was superintendent of the Messalonskee School District in Oakland, he was among many Maine superintendents who got waivers from the state education commissioner so his students didn’t have to make up all 11 snow days from that winter.

Some aspects of calling snow days have gotten easier in recent years. Superintendents often have more advance notice and better information about incoming storms, thanks to improvements in meteorological science and technology.

Still, it’s not easy to judge the potential impact of some storms, so superintendents often consult each other for guidance, Namin said. It can be especially difficult in more rural communities, where driving conditions can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“It is always our collective intent to err on the side of safety,” Gorham Superintendent Ted Sharp wrote in a storm-policy letter to parents in November.

Generally, Sharp said, school officials are far more concerned about ice than snow, because Maine usually gets plenty of snow, and ice is a greater threat to students’ safety.

“If schools are open on a stormy day and you are convinced that the conditions in your area are simply too problematic for you to be comfortable sending your children to school, by all means keep them home,” Sharp advised in the letter. “Once they do return to school they will have ample time to make up any work that they may have missed during the storm day(s) that you kept them home.”

In addition to television and radio announcements, school districts now use websites, e-mail groups and automatic calling services to inform families about cancellations. South Portland, Biddeford, Falmouth and Bonny Eagle websites were among those that had school cancellation notices on Wednesday.

“The key things for us are communication and planning,” Namin said. “We want to get the word out because it really does impact the entire community. Then we have to figure out how the work will be made up when students come back to school.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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