Of the many ideas for changes to state policy following May’s deadly tornado outbreak — changing building codes to make public structures safer, requiring shelters in new school buildings, providing money to upgrade schools without shelters — the one that has the best chance of actually happening is ‘tornado days.’
Local superintendents don’t need any approval to cancel school in the winter— or spring, when sunny weather can quickly turn violent.
Tulsa has just one FEMA-approved storm shelter in its entire school system. Still, Bob Roberts, the district’s emergency management coordinator, says Tulsa likely won’t be canceling classes when possibly tornadic weather threatens.
“Tornados tend to hit the eastern part of the state in early evening. They don’t issue tornado watches until late morning to early afternoon,” Roberts says. “So this isn’t a question of cancelling school. This is a question of closing school while students are in it. And that becomes very problematic.”
Districts could end up cancelling full days of class that end up being storm-free. Letting class out early as severe weather approaches could lead to stranded students, and traffic congestion at the worst possible time.
But the same problems don’t really apply to small, rural districts, like Alex, in southwestern Oklahoma. Last month, Superintendent James Washburn told StateImpact he’ll cancel class ahead of severe weather until his school gets a shelter, and thinks other small-town superintendents will, too.
“It’s just too much of a danger to have that many people concentrated in one area. When you lose lives, it’s just not acceptable,” Washburn says.
The state Department of Education says as long as schools provide 175 days of instruction each year, districts can cancel school for any weather, anytime of the year.
The question is whether cancelling school for severe storms is the right thing to do — whether it saves lives.
Oklahoma wouldn’t be the first state to call school for possible tornados. An EF-4 severely damaged the high school in Enterprise, Ala. in 2007, killing nine students. When another round of storms came through four years later, officials in Tuscaloosa cancelled school — and they’re glad they did.
“When the April 27, 2011 tornado happened, we had been receiving weather reports about it, and our acting superintendent at the time decided to call school off on that day,” Lesley Bruinton, public relations coordinator for Tuscaloosa City Schools, says. “As we found out later, by the time the sun had set, two of our buildings had been hit by that EF-4 tornado. You hate to speculate about what would have happened if we’d been in school.”