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Snow job 

When the weather outside is frightful, it’s Ann Bell’s job to decide to call off school or not. Michael Fleury reports.

There are 23,000 students in the Halifax Regional School Board, and most of them unwittingly pray to Ann Bell.Bell is the coordinator of pupil transportation for the Halifax Regional School Board, and these days, she’s keeping a close eye on the skies. Every time a major storm slams into Halifax, Bell is responsible for deciding whether 140 Halifax schools will be open or closed. Not an easy task, especially given the unpredictable mood swings of a Halifax winter.

“For example, it’s supposed to rain tonight,” explains Bell. “In the winter, rain is a concern for us, because if it’s right on the zero mark, we’ve got to be checking. So tomorrow morning, I’ll be up at 5am.”

Big storms mean an early start for Bell. Typically, decisions have to be made by roughly 5:30am, and the media have to be notified sometime before 6am. By the time most students and parents are rolling over to hit the snooze button, Bell has already been on the phone with an Environment Canada meteorologist, spokespersons from the school bus company and senior members of the school board. The group consults with Bell and eventually a consensus is reached on what to do regarding the school day.

Bell says that although bus service can be interrupted as often as 20 times a year within the region, decisions are never made lightly.

“If we make the wrong decision, somebody can get hurt,” says Bell. “But on the other hand, we can’t cancel buses and school every time a flake of snow falls. The kids would lose way too much time, and it’s just not reasonable in Halifax.”

Weather forecasts are helpful, but never perfect. Bell is often forced to rely on her own judgment and experience to make the call. It’s not always clear which storms are going to develop into raging blizzards and which will fizzle into a few flurries, but some factors can make her decision a little easier. In the world of pupil transportation, timing is everything.

“When I hear of a storm coming towards us, my hope is that it’s very cut-and-dry, very straightforward, and happens when it says it’s going to happen,” says Bell. “I’m hoping that when I’m up at four or five in the morning, it’s right in the throes of a major system.

“That’s the perfect storm in my opinion. It makes my decision very easy.”

Due to the unique power that comes with the job, Bell’s profession appeals distinctly to kids. What fourth-grader hasn’t occasionally wanted to ring up the local school board and say, “I don’t know, Bob, looks pretty bleak. Better not risk it”? But when Bell was a child, she says she never dreamed about someday becoming the all-powerful adult who could close the schools.

“I would never have thought I’d be doing what I do,” says Bell. “And a lot of times, it’s the part of my job that I really don’t like. It’s not easy.”

Still reminiscing, Bell says that she can remember having a certain fondness for winter in her youth. But it’s only a memory. From December to March, Bell’s job swells with stress. And it’s not just due to fluctuating forecasts. In addition to raging weather, Bell often has to deal with raging parents.

“There’s always some second-guessing, after the fact,” says Bell. “Sometimes parents understand when you explain the process that we go through, but other times they only see their own circumstances on their own street or in their own community. It’s understandable, certainly, but sometimes difficult to deal with.”

Despite the occasional angry mom and dad, or 20 centimetres of snow that turns into a light drizzle, Bell says she thoroughly enjoys her position—although she has dreamed about a change of venue.

“I’ve made jokes over the years that I was going to get a transportation supervisor job in Florida,” says Bell, laughing. “But then again, they’ve got other kinds of weather problems to deal with, don’t they?”


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