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Students from Prairie Woods Elementary School in New London scurry to their buses Friday, where they were leaving for an extended weekend due to an Arctic blast that will drop temperatures into next week to dangerously low levels. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

‘Dangerous and historic’ cold snap leads to cancellation of Minnesota schools

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ST. PAUL — Weather forecasters say “a very dangerous and historic cold air outbreak” will cover the Upper Midwest early next week, prompting Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to take the rare action of closing public schools Monday.

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The National Weather Service Friday predicted that the bitterly cold air will arrive Sunday night and last through Tuesday morning: “A wind chill warning is in effect for this time period. Highs of 10 to 20 below and lows of 15 to 30 below are expected.”

Wind chills could reach as low as 60 below, with temperatures the coldest Minnesotans have felt since 1996.

With the coldest weather expected Monday, when most Minnesota students were to go back to classes after a two-week break, Dayton became the second governor in modern times to close schools.

“The safety of Minnesota’s school children must be our first priority,” Dayton said Friday. “I have made this decision to protect all our children from the dangerously cold temperatures now forecasted for next Monday.”

Shortly after the announcement, Education Department official Charlene Briner tweeted: “That sound you hear is the collective cheering of 850,000 MN students who thought today was their last day to sleep in.”

While students look forward to at least one bonus day off, state officials said that a variety of factors converged to make it logical to cancel classes.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that the decision came because more than 80 straight hours of bitterly cold weather are predicted across the state. Also, she said, because of cold weather during the holiday break, buses could be difficult to run after being parked so long.

Cold temperatures are predicted to cover the entire Upper Midwest, so closing schools statewide makes sense, the commissioner said.

“This is a historic weather pattern,” Cassellius said, with wind chills expected to be so cold that students waiting for a bus or walking to school could suffer frostbite after just five or 10 minutes.

Cassellius said that weather seldom is the same across Minnesota, so a statewide closure usually is not needed.

“Typically weather patterns are varied throughout the state,” she said. “But we know with this one coming that the entire state will be blanketed with cold temperatures.”

Some schools were considering canceling Monday classes, and officials already did in Rochester. Leaders of the state’s three largest schools — Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin — issued a statement thanking Dayton for taking action.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was considering closing schools in his state. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Walker would wait until Sunday night to decide.

In North Dakota, Gov. Jack Dalrymple encouraged school superintendents to use their discretion in deciding whether to close schools on Monday, with student safety being the first priority. The South Dakota governor’s office also said local officials will make any school-closing decisions.

Much of eastern North Dakota and South Dakota and western Minnesota fell under a blizzard or winter storm advisory Friday afternoon and night, with travel not advised as wind-whipped snow made roads slick. But a weekend fall into the deep freeze was the bigger issue throughout the region.

Sunday’s and Monday’s highs in Bismarck, N.D., are predicted to be 15 below zero and Mitchell, S.D., likely will not top 10 below on Monday.

The forecast for all areas of Minnesota, from the Canadian border to Iowa, is about the same Monday. Highs may not reach 15 below anywhere in the state, the National Weather Service predicts. Winds of 15 miles an hour, expected in some places, would kick wind chills to 50 below.

The Minnesota forecast is duplicated for much of Wisconsin.

The National Weather Service said some cold temperature records may be broken.

While the Upper Midwest prepared for bitter wind chills and the northeastern United States dug out from up to nearly two feet of snow, a St. Petersburg, Fla., event was canceled Friday night due to the cold. The First Friday block party was called off because of 50-degree temperatures. That’s above zero.

In the Upper Midwest, the blizzard and predicted bitter cold led to a long list of cancellations.

The Minnesota governor’s office said his decision to close schools was announced Friday so school administrators, teachers and parents could make plans.

If Tuesday remains frigid, Cassellius said, she does not expect the governor to cancel classes again. She said local officials likely will make that decision.

Private schools make their own decisions about closing, not governed by Dayton’s Friday announcement.

All schools will decide whether to hold activities, but Cassellius said she expects most Monday activities to be canceled. Each district also will decide whether teachers and staff should work Monday.

State law gives the governor authority to order schools to close.

In modern times, only Gov. Arne Carlson closed schools statewide, and he did it three times: Jan. 18, 1994, Feb. 2, 1996, and Jan. 16, 1997.

School superintendents were hesitant to criticize Carlson after his 1997 decision, but some argued then that the decision should be local.

“Are we that bad off?” Cook County High School Principal Mark Sanbo told the Duluth News Tribune at the time. “I don’t know. Most of the people I know that live in the state of Minnesota kind of expect cold weather. It’s a hazard of living here. People kind of wear it as a badge of courage.”

Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, suggested that students continue to learn despite the day off Monday.

“We’re encouraging students to read for at least on hour Monday and catch up on their homework,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “If students need a new book, there’s time to visit a library this weekend.”

Students at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota systems across the state continue their winter break next week, so classes are not scheduled.

Dayton spokesman Bob Hume said that state officials are watching the weather, but as of Friday afternoon there were no plans to close state offices Monday.

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