Sewanee Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Franklin County Schools.
By Claire Smith
Most students on campus have probably heard of Sewanee Elementary School closing in the past few weeks. Some have had classes cancelled by their professors or office hours changed, or simply heard their professors mention their frustration at having yet another day of school cancelled.
Since the beginning of this semester, Franklin County Schools have closed nine days, and dismissed early an additional three days. Two closings in January were due to illness, but most of the cancellations have been due to inclement weather. Between cancellations and scheduled holidays, the school system has not had a full week of classes for the entire semester.
While Sewanee is on higher ground and has not experienced extensive flooding, many roads lower in the valleys in Franklin County have been closed due to flooding, making it impossible for people to commute to work or school or for buses to pick up students. Delinda McDonald, who is in charge of public relations and attendance for Franklin County School District, posted a set of photos taken throughout Franklin County of roads flooded with running water, blocking intersections and driveways throughout the region and making “school bus travel virtually impossible.”
While closing school has been a matter of necessity for keeping students and teachers safe, faculty and staff at the University have had difficulties with the frequent and often last-minute closings. It is not uncommon for school closings to be announced the night before or for early dismissals to be announced the same day, leaving working parents to scramble for a babysitter or family member to watch their child. Parents sometimes run out of options and have to bring their child into class or their office. Dr. Shana Minkin, chair of the IGS department, said that the latest call parents received was at 10:19 p.m. to cancel school the following morning, and that “there were a few days where I reached out to six or seven students [to babysit] before I decided to cancel class and stay home with my child.”
When working parents have to scramble to address last-minute changes to their schedule, not only does this affect short-term commitments to their students, it can also make it difficult to focus on long-term projects such as research or committee work. When cancellations pile up or occur for days at a time, the effect multiplies.
Dr. Jennifer Michael (C’89), chair of the English department, has a son at Sewanee Elementary. She commented on the effect this has on productivity not just for individual professors, but throughout campus: “It affects productivity, it affects the way we all do our jobs, it affects the time we’re able to give to students. And it does have kind of a snowball effect because you have to miss something for a school closure, and then people are not getting things from you in a timely manner, things have to be rescheduled. It ends up affecting people who don’t have kids as well, and it affects the students too.”
Though some parents have criticized the frequent school cancellations, most notice that they are due not to deficiencies in the school district leadership, but to poor infrastructure that cannot accommodate the flooding Franklin County has experienced with the increasingly heavy rains over the past few years. Dr. Micheal says, “A lot of people complain and criticize the school district for this, but… it’s an issue of infrastructure. We have schools in low-lying areas, we have roads that are not sufficiently maintained, and so it all comes back to that, to funding the infrastructure.”
Though this amount of flooding and school cancellation is uncommon for recent years, many have noted that this could be a new climate reality for the region due to the documented increases in moisture the Plateau has experienced in the past few years.
Caroline Graham (C’21), a natural resources major and Bonner site leader for the Wednesday Wonderings after-school program at Sewanee Elementary, noted that she scheduled in an extra week of classes for Wednesday because she has learned to expect and accommodate for inclement weather, and that she has noticed more difficulties with weather in the past few years as the site leader. The long term solution to keeping children in school more often, as Graham and faculty members argued, is to acknowledge the effect climate change may have on the roads in Franklin County and to invest in infrastructure that will make roads safer and more accessible.
In the short term, the issue comes down to collective problem-solving within the University to accommodate for school cancellations and allow parents working at the University more options. Currently, each parent is left to find an individual solution on a day-to-day basis to find childcare when school is closed. Some faculty and staff have voiced their desire for some leadership from the University to find a collective solution to this problem.
Dr. Michael noted that the current system puts all of the burden on individuals or groups of parents to cobble together childcare on short notice, and says “it’s crazy to me that each individual family has to work this out for themselves rather than have a collective solution.” Dr. Minkin concurred, saying, “I think that it is a lot to ask faculty and staff with elementary school age kids to be in the constant process of last-minute individual solutions…I hope that the University will be creative in helping faculty and staff so that it’s not an individual panic.”
Each staff or faculty member that was interviewed commented on the support they felt from administrators and colleagues as they navigated their difficult schedules; Maris Owens, a member of the University’s Human Resources Staff commented that “For staff, most supervisors are understanding and supportive of parents who need to miss work due to school cancellation.”
Dr. Betsy Sandlin, associate dean of the college, noted that there is already a supportive and collaborative spirit in the Sewanee community. “Many of our colleagues in Sewanee work together to find temporary solutions, like taking turns looking after one another’s children or hosting children in groups at the home of the person with the most flexible schedule that day,” she said, “… We are all very supportive of each other, and it is not a problem at all when someone needs to reschedule a committee meeting or something along those lines.”
The issue parents face is not lack of support and understanding, but access to reliable resources to alleviate the burden of finding short-notice childcare. If this supportive spirit many people feel could be built up with institutional change and collaboration, there is room for real progress that helps parents stay focused on their work at the University when unpredictable closings strike.
Though specific solutions have not been mentioned yet, especially as issues of childcare involve many legal considerations, Dr. Minkin confirmed that Dean Sandlin is open to working with faculty to find a creative solution between parents and the University. Minkin has reached out the Dean’s office, and said that “The Dean’s office is aware that this impacts faculty and staff’s ability to do their jobs tremendously, and has agreed to try to think creatively about what the school can do within the legal allowances of the system.”