Superintendents weigh forecasts, roads as they decide on Midlands school closings

01/29/2014 6:38 PM

01/29/2014 10:01 PM


Midlands area school superintendents faced a daunting situation this week: a moveable winter weather forecast that potentially could have snarled afternoon bus commutes and stranded students, teachers and district employees.

But if any of them second-guessed themselves for the Tuesday snow day that wasn’t, they only had to look to Atlanta with its nightmare scenario of stalled commuters and schoolchildren stuck on buses or sleeping overnight in schools.

“What happened in Atlanta was exactly my worst nightmare,” Kershaw County superintendent Frank Morgan said Wednesday. “The thing we struggled with all day Monday was, what would be the starting time of the storm?”

While the Midlands’ schools were closed Wednesday, area superintendents split on whether to open Tuesday.

After analyzing overnight forecasts, Lexington districts chose to open on time and go a half-day. The two Richland County districts, Kershaw, Calhoun and Fairfield counties made the decision to close Monday evening, only to watch as the forecast pushed the storm’s arrival into Tuesday evening.

“The timing for this was moving all over the place,” said Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm, who was making her first snow day decision as superintendent. “There’s no crystal ball on this,” she said, so all day administration personnel wrestled with whether to go a half-day or cancel classes altogether.

The storm’s erratic and changing path frustrated Richland 1 superintendent Percy Mack, whose district encompasses 498 square miles of urban and rural roads. “Nobody could tell you a set path,” he said Wednesday night. “It wasn’t worth the uncertainty.”

The region’s superintendents confer by conference call or email before major weather events, and this week’s was no different. At 5 p.m. Monday, they conferred and discussed what each was planning to do.

“What pushed my decision was the National Weather Service,” Morgan, the Kershaw County superintendent, said. “They were talking 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning. When I saw that I said, I don’t think so.”

In Lexington County, the five districts also were sharing information among themselves, keeping up with National Weather Service forecasts and conferring with the county’s emergency management service. At 4 p.m. Monday, the Lexington districts held a conference call and then gathered again by phone with all the Midlands districts at 5 p.m.

By that point, the Lexington districts had decided they wanted to remain flexible and hold off on announcing a decision until early Tuesday. The Richland County districts and outlying rural districts were ready to announce closing.

“We left it that we would have an early morning call on Tuesday morning,” said Jeff Salters, Lexington 1’s chief operations officer. He was up and down most of the night, monitoring forecasts. At 4 a.m., the forecast was for the storm to arrive between 2 and 3 p.m.

“We felt like we could get some school in,” he said. “So we decided at that point we should do a half-day.”

Salters, like others involved in school closing decisions, remembers March 2008 when the forecast of a major storm, and a lot of media hype, prompted all the districts to close school. The storm never materialized and children frolicked on a sunny day.

Hamm said her district’s preference is to make decisions “earlier rather than later,” so that parents have time to make child-care decisions. She said the scenario of children heading home through a snowstorm is bad, but arriving home with no one there can be worse.

All the districts must factor in how long it takes to deliver students to and from school when they determine whether to cancel classes because of bad weather.

“It actually takes a long time for us to get our kids home,” Hamm said. “The buses are triple routed and the earliest we can dismiss is at 11 a.m. for middle schools because they start the earliest. Those buses have to come back and pick up elementary kids and then they take them home and go pick up high school students at 12:30 p.m.”

By the time those students are taken home and the buses return to the depot it can be past 2 p.m., one of the potential start times for this particular storm.

Salters has made these decisions enough times to be philosophical, even in the wake of complaints from parents who might second-guess district decisions. As it turned out, Lexington 1 students could have gone to school the whole day, he said, but given that 4 a.m. forecast he’s comfortable with the decision that was made.

“The safety of the students is primary to everything we do,” he said. “We absolutely don’t want to be in a situation like that in Atlanta where students were stuck at school.”

“I think people appreciate that you are trying, that you are making decisions based on a moving target,” said Salters, who doesn’t second-guess decisions of surrounding districts. “Any call that makes students safe is the right call. People can criticize all they want, but our biggest fear is end up with students trapped on a bus in the middle of an event.”

Morgan said making weather closing decisions is his least favorite duty, but he too said he will err on the side of caution even if he ends up looking foolish.

“I would rather people think I’m not too smart for a day or two rather than have something bad happen,” he said.

Weather makeup days

School districts are required to schedule three severe weather makeup days. If the district does not need one of the days, it becomes a holiday for students. If a district needs more than the three days allotted, district officials and superintendents often confer to make recommendations. Districts will likely announce soon which dates they will select for a makeup day or days for this week’s snow event.

Here are makeup days designated on 2013-14 district calendars posted at the beginning of the school year:

Kershaw County: Jan. 14, March 7, May 26

Lexington 1: Feb. 14, March 14, April 21

Lexington 2: Jan. 20, Feb. 17, May 26

Lexington 3: Feb. 14, March 14, April 21

Lexington 4: Feb 14, April 21, June 6

Lexington-Richland 5: Jan. 21, Feb. 17, June 6

Richland 1: Jan. 21, Feb. 17, March 28

Richland 2: Feb. 14, March 28, April 21

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