At 5:00 in the morning on a winter day in Instructor Ann Kirkendall’s house, the phone rang. It was the automated message from West Ottawa Public Schools telling her that school was closed due to inclimate weather. It was going to be a relaxing day of grading papers. To her surprise, though, the weather outside of her window was partly cloudy with some sun poking through. No snow was falling, the roads were pretty clear, and there was nothing on the forecast that was at all threatening. Kirkendall previously lived in Rockford, and her kids attended Rockford Public Schools, who still had school. Kirkendall lived only about 35 miles away from WO, but the weather was drastically different.
For instructors who live in other cities, the weather is especially important. They sometimes need to commute close to 50 miles, and such large deviations in the climate change the travel time immensely. Instructor Kristen Bentley lives in Grand Rapids, so on good days, she has a 40 minute drive each way. Her weekday journey to work takes her through Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Byron Center, Grandville, Hudsonville, and Zeeland school districts before arriving at WO. Bentley remembers days during her teaching career at WO when all Kent County schools have been closed, but Ottawa County schools had not. “On those days, It is very scary to drive on the roads, but the times it has happened, the roads in West Ottawa have been alright,” Bentley said.
Kirkendall addressed her winter drive. “The most treacherous part of the drive from Rockford is the I-196 junction between Rockford and the Zeeland exits. If both of those districts are closed but WO is not, it is just the worst. On one such day, we were all driving really slowly when the car in front of me hit a patch of ice and went spinning into the ditch. For a car to spin off the road while going 25 miles per hour, well that just means that those are really poor weather conditions. Days like that leave me imagining calling in my sub plans from a snow filled ditch while waiting for a tow truck.” For everyone in Holland, getting to school on days like these is not difficult. For anyone coming from out of town, the risk of bad roads is still very real.
The situation becomes even harder on the out of town instructors if they have kids that attend other school districts. “We have a plan in place so that our kids go to school with some family friends in the event that WO has school but their district does not,” Instructor Jeremy Heavilin said. Other instructors have different circumstances though.
Kirkendall has moved closer to WO, but she is still far enough away that her kids must go to another district. “We haven’t run into any days when WO is open but our home school isn’t since we moved, but if we do, I will have to call in sick to watch the kids.”
Other times, WO has a snow day but other school districts do not. Just this year in fact, WO had a school day while other districts were still open for business. “We don’t live that far away from WO, but our kids go to a different district, and they still had school on that day,” Heavilin said.
“There have been days when it is sunny at my house in GR, but snowy in Holland–just last week, in fact. Those are my favorite snow days, when it’s clear driving at home, but horrible in Holland,” Bentley said. It’s also a great time to catch up on some work. “When our home school is open but WO is closed, I’ve used those days as grading days; I’m not at WO, but I’m still working,” Kirkendall said. It’s really amazing how a few tens of miles can change how somebody’s day is going to unfold, just because of the winter weather.
The worst circumstances are when almost every district nearby to WO closes, but WO does not. “When I lived in Rockford, there were a handful of days when we would have six or more inches of freshly fallen snow or, more commonly, freezing rain and WO would have nothing. On those days, I left my house early, crossed my fingers, and drove cautiously. So far, I’ve been lucky!” Kirkendall said.
It may be that the lake effect snow exaggerates circumstances that we experience, but it is nonetheless impressive how much of a contrast there can be between neighboring towns. It is always interesting to see which schools around WO are opened or closed, and it always keeps us guessing what impact the weather will have on us tomorrow.