Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:30 am
Mon February 17, 2014

Experts Say School Tornado Days Could Cause More Harm Than Good

The death of seven students in the tornado that hit Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School last May has ignited an ongoing debate about storm shelters and school safety.

State lawmakers and advocacy groups are calling for better school construction to protect kids from future storms, and some people are now also raising questions about whether they should simply keep their kids home when severe weather is in the forecast. 

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Tornado damaged classroom in the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma. An F5 tornado struck the area on May 20, causing widespread destruction.
Credit Andrea Booher / FEMA

As a winter storm bore down on the east coast late last week, many school districts gave snow days to their students. Here in Oklahoma recently, some school districts closed their doors and declared “cold days” when the temperatures were too low to hold classes. And at the National Tornado Summit in Oklahoma City last week, one topic on everyone’s mind was whether to give “tornado days” when bad weather is on the horizon.

Harold Brooks with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks it might not be the best idea.

“We aren't really sure in a lot of places whether being at home is actually a more dangerous environment than being at school in terms of what the construction is like,” Brooks said.

The idea of granting tornado days is supported by small school districts concerned about liability issues, as well as by worried parents, who point to the destruction of the two elementary schools in Moore. 

But National Weather Center Meteorologist Rick Smith notes many homes in the surrounding neighborhoods sustained similar damage.  

“Had there been more children in those homes and potentially children unsupervised or alone in those homes, the results could've even been worse,” Smith said.

Smith says that if fortified properly, a large building like a school could actually be safer than a house. But it’s hard to convince parents, who understandably want to be near their kids during a storm.

Rather than giving everyone a tornado day, though, Smith thinks a better approach would be to have a more lenient absence policy, to permit those parents who want their kids to stay home to do so without being penalized.

“It’s a horrible situation, and obviously, I mean I have kids, everyone wants to do everything they can to protect their children, and that’s fine. I think there are alternatives to just locking the doors and shutting the doors on a tornado day,” Smith said.

Rhonda Bass is the superintendent at Noble Public Schools. She says the new state grading system for schools makes it difficult for districts like hers to allow kids to take off.

“Sometimes parents choose to keep their children at home whenever I have chosen to open school,” Bass said.

“That in turn hurts our school attendance grade as well as impacting students' loss of instructional time,” she said.

So while Bass understands how some parents feel, she says she’d rather use some of the calendar days the district has reserved for inclement weather.

“This year, with all of the snow and ice that's come in, we've used 6 of those days, right now we still have 3 days built in,” Bass said.

“If we need to turn out school in the springtime due to atmospheric conditions lending themselves to tornadic activity, we'll be able to use those days.”

But Norman Public Schools’ Superintendent Joe Siano isn’t as comfortable with that idea. He respects Bass’ decision, but he thinks whether to keep a child at home or send them to school on a stormy day should be an individual choice.

“I think we ought to be able to expand parents’ opportunities as opposed to minimize opportunities of where kids can be during these events,” Siano said.

Some meteorologists also note that most tornados occur in the evenings, so it may not make sense to close a school for an entire day.

If Oklahoma schools did decide to offer tornado days this spring, they won’t be the first. Schools in Mississippi and Alabama already have similar policies in place.

Going forward, one thing everyone one can agree on is this: the tornado day decision wouldn’t be nearly so difficult for parents if schools all had proper safe rooms.

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