Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Some Shelterless Oklahoma Schools to Cancel Class When Tornados Threaten

Father Jesse Crew says he'd prefer schools install storm shelters instead of shutting down for "tornado days" during severe weather.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Mara Crew's father, Jesse, says he'd prefer Tulsa-area schools install storm shelters instead of closing doors for "tornado days" during severe weather.

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.

The risk of tornadoes grows after the public school day ends, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information show.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The risk of tornadoes grows after the public school day ends, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information show.

“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.”

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  • Beau Dodson

    I was wondering how many kids are killed each year traveling to school and traveling home from school. I found this article – One fact adds some urgency to that need: 815 students die annually and 152,250 are injured during regular travel between school and home, figures that do not include special activity trips and other school related journeys. From Health Children.org http://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/pages/Safety-On-The-Way-To-School.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3A+No+local+token

  • Rob Miles

    Shelters in schools are impractical. An aboveground shelter big enough to house my small school population of 400 (students and teachers) would be the size of an auditorium and therefore would be unlikely to stand up to a strong tornado. An underground shelter for 400 would need ventilation, bathrooms and would need to be locked when not in use. Who keeps the key?

    Canceling school for hypothetical storms…sounds kind of silly to me. No, there is not foolproof solution but consider this. Had Moore public schools canceled on May 21st, many of the students at my son’s school who safely rode out the storm at school would have been home, quite possibly unsupervised (because their parents work) in neighborhoods that were devastated by the storm. Sending kids home when parents are working makes much less sense than weathering the storm in the school with adult supervision.

  • BRob11

    You’re right on target, Rob. In order to effectively cancel school, we’d need to make that decision by 5:00 am. That’s difficult enough if you’re looking at a winter storm, but for a state that may issue the potential of a tornado watch 15-30 times a year, it would be a huge disruption to the school schedule, run school into June as the weather’s heating up, and parents would be screaming as school was canceled time after time for a day when nothing occurred.

    And that doesn’t even factor in the issue that you stated…school may not be perfect, but in most cases it’s safer than the student’s home, supervised or not.

    I would argue one issue with you…an above ground shelter housing several hundred students that meets FEMA 360 standards should stand up to a strong tornado. They can be built (and have) as multi-purpose rooms that can function as band rooms, auditoriums, or gyms. Joplin installed such a shelter at their high school after the tornadoes, Newcastle and Beggs school districts in Oklahoma have done the same. and they’re impressive. And expensive. While the economics of school saferooms can be debated, the engineering available is good.

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