There's snow forecast and once again we face the prospect of further disruption to schools and work. Heads around the country will be setting their alarm clocks to be up before dawn to decide whether to stay open or to close their doors. Living on site I have one advantage in that I can check what is the state of paths around school - I have to rely on inspiration and common sense to evaluate the state of the side-roads, to estimate how many staff will make it in and to weigh up the inevitable range of health and safety concerns and responsibilities.
The decision to have a snow-day is never taken lightly, but until recently I had not appreciated quite how far-reaching their consequences are. A week or so ago I was in conversation with two people who run challenging scenarios for the Cabinet Office as part of their national disaster planning and training. They mentioned that it was safer to keep schools open during a Flu Pandemic, despite the risk of transmission of disease. The reason for this is that once schools close, in excess of 30% of the critical medical workforce do not report to work because they stay at home to look after their children. No wonder the cost of the recent bad weather is put in the £millions.
If snow is going to be a problem that we face more often, perhaps the time has come to look more seriously at those countries who have more experience in these matters than us. A couple of thoughts from around the world:
First, I am writing from Kiev where snow falls have literally buried cars parked on the roadside. There are piles of snow some four feet high, but the traffic is flowing normally and the clear up operation on an industrial scale is well under way. Teams of snowploughs and JCBs are systematically ploughing and scraping the roads and paths - then tipper-trucks are taking it all away and presumably dumping the snow directly into the Dnieper River. One factor in the succcss in keeping many of the main roads open and functioning lies in their construction. They are made of brick rather than tarmac. This both has the advantage of allowing the inevitable expansion and contraction that comes with freeze-thaw - thus avoiding the disruption and damage of pot-holes - and, because it allows the thawing water to drain through the road or pavement, the roads are cleared more quickly. Perhaps the undoubted higher initial cost of providing this infrastructure is money well spent in the long run.
Secondly, talking to a friend from New Hampshire, who was visiting last week, I was rather taken with the system that they have in schools in New England. It is accepted that there might be up to five snow days a year, but any days over this figure are added to end of the school academic year. I can't help but wonder if this approach might encourage parents, pupils and schools to take fewer snow days.