John Malloy isn’t an early riser but the head of Toronto’s public school board was up at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday, without the aid of an alarm clock, because of a gut feeling that he would need to make “a really big decision.”
By about 6 a.m., before a single snowflake had fallen, Malloy had taken the rare step in declaring a snow day — the third in the last two decades — shutting down the Toronto District School Board, impacting thousands of families.
“The safest and wisest thing was to close schools,” explained the director of education, during the afternoon as a storm of snow, ice pellets, and freezing rain pummelled the city. “It was the smart move.”
He wasn’t alone in making that call. Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area also shut down and classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. There were also disruptions at Toronto’s Billy Bishop and Pearson airports, with flights cancelled.
“Closing schools is something we seldom consider,” explained Malloy of the TDSB which is the largest public school board in Canada with 582 schools and 246,000 students. It’s rarely considered because 90 per cent of students live within walking distance of the school, many parents have to work, which can leave some scrambling about what to do with their children, and staff are supported if they feel they can’t get to work safely.
The last time the board closed was in 2011, when a storm dubbed Snowmageddon failed to deliver the anticipated wallop, leaving some parents saying school officials had overreacted. Prior to that, there was a snow day in 1999, when then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help clear snow.
“These decisions are important — they are about safety, about family, about service and so we take it very, very seriously,” said Malloy. “All of this happened between 5 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.”
By 5 a.m. transportation staff at the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board were in joint talks with their bus carrier, which services both boards, about current and forecast weather conditions and road conditions. After the associate directors at both boards made the decision to cancel buses, it was up to the directors to decide on school closures for their boards. Malloy called his counterpart at the TCDSB, Rory McGuckin, and the pair discussed weather conditions and what other boards, universities and colleges were doing. And, he said, they listened to their instincts, both agreeing that closing schools was the best move.
“People sometimes wonder why we don’t make these decisions early and the reason we don’t is because weather changes — and if weather changes and the conditions we expect don’t happen, people get upset,” explained Malloy.
At the Catholic board, the closure affected 196 schools and 95,000 students.
“We don’t take the decision-making process lightly,” said TCDSB spokesperson Shazia Vlahos. “(We’re) always erring on the side of safety for children and staff.”
Peel District School Board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, Halton Catholic District School Board and Halton District School Board also closed schools. In York Region and Durham, public and Catholic school boards cancelled bus service but remained opened, which drew criticism on social media from people who said classes should have also been cancelled.
The early decision by Toronto school boards meant that daycares operating inside of schools were also closed, said city spokesperson Brad Ross. The city also cancelled recreation programs, such as swimming and skating lessons, and at city hall, “non-essential” staff were able to leave work early afternoon.
“We really leave it up to the division head’s discretion in terms of who they’re able to free up to allow to go home,” added Ross. “It’s not unlike, really, how things are dealt with on a Christmas Eve.”
City services such as 311, garbage collection, and snowplowing continued throughout the day.
Some flights at Toronto’s airports were cancelled or delayed. Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said a “number of considerations” go into cancellations, including weather at the arrival airport, if the airline has space on a later flight to the same destination, or if they can find a larger airplane and consolidate two flights into one.
“We don’t like to cancel flights with lots of connections because then people can get stranded,” he said in an email. “We tend to cancel more short-haul trips on routes with lots of daily flights.”
Once a cancellation is decided, customers are contacted to rebook, he said, urging people to always check their flight status before heading to the airport.
In the region, classes at many universities and colleges were cancelled, including University of Waterloo, Ryerson University and George Brown College.
At the University of Toronto, the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses were closed for the day; however the downtown St. George campus remained open. By midday officials had reversed their decision, cancelling classes after 4 p.m.
The initial decision drew sharp criticism from students on social media, who wondered why the downtown campus was open when others were closed.
Third-year English major Lindsay Tramble called this approach a “blatant disregard for the safety of students.”
“As a commuter from Etobicoke I am forced to schlep two hours each way on the TTC through the ice and cold when other colleges/universities have made their students’ safety their number one priority,” she said in an email.
University spokesperson Elizabeth Church, said in an email the decision to cancel classes is based on a number of factors, “including, public transportation, highway conditions and snow and ice removal on campus grounds.” She added, the safety of the community is the top priority when making a decision about class cancellations.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74