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Another snow day? Here’s what happens behind the scenes when school is cancelled

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These days, dreams of staying home from school are becoming more of a reality for students across the province as the number of snow days keeps piling up.

When the weather’s bad, Daniel Wishart, transportation manager for the Anglophone West School District, is one of the individuals who decides whether school will be cancelled for the day.

“Depending on who you’re talking to, you’re either a hero or a jerk,” he said.

School districts across the province, such as Francophone South, Anglophone East and Anglophone South, have said they make similar early morning decisions that affect thousands of students, teachers and school employees.

“Sometimes it is an easy decision, sometimes we are back and forth quite a few times,” said Zoë Watson, superintendent of the Anglophone South School District.

What classifies as a snow day?

During a storm, Daniel Wishart, transportation manager for the Anglophone West School District, says it takes about an hour to determine whether school will be cancelled. (CBC)

They might be called snow days, but Wishart said school can be cancelled whenever a weather system makes roads unsafe to travel.

Those weather systems could include everything from rain, freezing rain, flooding and cooler temperatures that could reach below –40 C.

“We’re talking about students and safety, that’s our bottom line,” he said.

Who decides?

Safe driving conditions is front and centre in their decision-making, says Wishart. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

When deciding to cancel school, Wishart describes it as a bit of a complex scenario.

“Every system’s different,” he said.

Wishart said he and a team of three Anglophone West assistant managers wake up around 4:30 a.m. and start checking about six different weather reports, including the National Weather Service in Caribou, Maine, Environment Canada, the Weather Network, AccuWeather and Amec Foster Wheeler, a contracted weather service provider that gives an hourly outlook of expected precipitation and breaks down wind speeds and temperature change. 

School districts like Anglophone South, might also monitor weather the day before a storm might hit.

Wishart said his team will call about 12 people within the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to check on road conditions in different parts of the province. Other districts will call on other municipalities or city staff for a report on road conditions.

“[We] discuss what the road conditions are like in each area and how some roads might be icy and some might be snow-packed,” he said.

Then, Wishart discusses with transportation managers in other school districts across the province to see what weather conditions are like and whether they’re cancelling school.

The whole process takes almost an hour before he and his team finalize their recommendation.

If you’re parking outside this winter, check these five ways to keep your car from freezing up. 2:19

“We make a decision collectively to pull the buses from the roads and not transport students,” he said.

After that, he calls the district superintendent around 5:15 a.m., when he offers his team’s recommendations. The superintendent then makes the final decision.

Then, Wishart contacts bus drivers within the school district and informs the public on school cancellations. He also notifies neighbouring school districts to let them know of any cancellations in Anglophone West.

“Every time, there’s a debate about what we should be doing,” he said.

The weather’s nice — why is there no school? 

While the weather might be fine in one part of the school district, a more rural area might have worse conditions, Wishart says. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

Although he monitors several weather reports before and during storm days, he admitted sometimes they don’t always get it right.

“If anybody knows of a weather report that’s 100 per cent right all the time, I’d love to have it,” he said. “But the reality is even with the meteorologists, they’re not right all the time.”   

He said poor weather conditions also depend on a person’s location.

On Dec. 21, several schools across the province, including all schools in Anglophone West, were closed following a freezing rain warning issued by Environment Canada. Wishart said he took a bit of heat for that because it turned out to be a beautiful day in urban centres.

“If you talked to people that lived out in the rural areas where there was some ice buildup on the roads, they would say you made a great decision,” he said.  

“If you base having school on the downtown core in Fredericton or Woodstock, you would always have school. The cities and that are fortunate they have a tax-base that they can provide a better service, that’s just the reality.”

Depending on where a storm hits, sometimes a school district will close schools in certain areas of the province.

And sometimes, although it’s rare, if he knows weather conditions will be poor in the afternoon, he will make a call at 11 a.m. for early dismissal.

“If we see a change that maybe it’s predicting it’s going to be worse at three o’clock then we would dismiss the schools an hour or two early just to try to beat the worst weather to try to get the students home safely,” he said.  

Classes cancelled for teachers

The New Brunswick teacher’s collective agreement states the school year has a total of 195 days, which include snow days. 

George Daley, president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, said when poor weather conditions force schools to close, teachers aren’t required to go into work.  

Now what?  

The Anglophone North School District is exploring e-learning options for students during a snow day. (CBC)

At least one New Brunswick school district, Anglophone North, is exploring the concept of e-learning for students during a snow day.

“We’re looking at anything that could possibly be an option for students who are not physically in the classroom,” said Meredith Caissie, spokesperson for the Anglophone North School District.

Although nothing is set in stone and the district is scouting different models, Caissie said students using different technologies for online learning has been an ongoing discussion between administration, school principals and the province for years.

“With more severe weather, it is becoming more and more of a discussion point,” she said.

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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