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Districts Grapple With Closure Decisions In Wake of 'Bomb Cyclone' Storm

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A giant winter storm swept through the East Coast this week, blanketing parts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina with snow for the first time in decades and bringing blizzard warnings and major school disruptions from Rhode Island to Maine.

In school districts from New England through the Deep South, the upheaval forced K-12 systems to make quick decisions, with top administrators coordinating decisions internally and then working in tandem with outside community agencies.

The "bomb cyclone" battered Southern cities and counties that normally don't get so much as a snow flurry, as well as northeastern communities accustomed to deep snow drifts.

District officials said they based their decisions on cancellations and delayed school starts primarily on protecting the safety of students, whose trips to school by car or bus were poised to become perilous. As schools worried about school buses not being able to navigate the roads, and engines not starting in frigid weather, the number of announced closures and delays increased.

In the Leon County Public Schools in Florida, home to Tallahassee, a blanket of freezing rain and snow Wednesday morning took the district's fleet of buses out of commission.

"We're not necessarily a city that is equipped to deal with black ice and ice on the roads," Chris Petley, a spokesperson for the 34,000-student district, said in an interview. The district decided to "err on the side of caution."

Many districts took a collaborative approach to closure decisions. The Huntsville City Schools in Alabama, for example, has a weather-safety team—made up of senior members in the district's transportation, risk and safety, and operations staffs—that coordinates with local emergency management agencies and the National Weather Service.

The team then makes a recommendation to the district superintendent, who makes the final decision about any delays or closures.

The district uses that process not just with snowstorms, but for any weather-related event, such as with the tornadoes that sometimes strike that area of Alabama, said Ward.

Similarly, in Leon County, it's important that the school district, city agencies, and higher education institutions in the area don't make closure decisions "in a vacuum," said Petley. If students are at home, that may affect parents' ability to go to work.

"We're the second-highest employer in the county," he said. "So if we're closing, then that has a ripple effect throughout the community."

The Leon County school district followed the same decision-making process during the storm that it uses during more typical Florida weather events, such as hurricanes. (Hurricane Irma shut down the district for a time last year.) Petley, the district spokesperson, said he couldn't remember the last time a Florida district had to close for a hurricane and a snow day both in such a short time span.

Cold Creates Havoc Indoors, Too

Some districts were compelled to close schools because of the spillover effect on streets, parking, and commuters. For instance, In Hartford, Conn., the city issued a street parking ban to allow for plows to come through, designating school parking lots for overflow parking.

"Once the parking ban is in, that's it," explained district spokesperson Pedro Zayas. Though weather conditions probably would have closed the district anyway, said Zayas, the parking ban in effect through Friday morning forced the school system's hand.

In the Huntsville city schools, unusually cold early morning windchills in the single digits caused the district to start on a two-hour delay throughout the week, said district spokesperson Keith Ward. The later start time allowed bus riders and walkers to avoid going outside at daybreak, when the temperature is lower than it would be a few hours later, he said.

For students in Baltimore city public schools, extremely cold temperatures posed a problem within school buildings, not just on the roads. About 60 schools filed complaints this week, with some buildings registering temperatures in the 30s and 40s, the Baltimore Sun reported. The city closed four schools on Wednesday and dismissed students early from two others.

The Baltimore Teachers Union has asked the school system's CEO, Sonja Santelises, to close all district schools until the heating problems could be fixed. Santelises has said that facilities staff is working to make repairs to the system. She said that outdated heating systems and poor insulation are the result of a longstanding lack of adequate funding for school infrastructure.

Baltimore's schools were closed Thursday due to snow, and are closed Friday as well.

In Providence, Rhode Island, where the windchill has pushed temperatures below zero this week, the public schools made the "unusual" decision on Wednesday to close for both Thursday and Friday due to the extreme cold, said Laura Hart, a district spokesperson. Normally, she said, Providence Public Schools makes closure decisions one day at a time.

The mayor of Providence makes the final decision about all weather-related delays and closures, but not before a conference call with school district leadership and representatives from other city departments, like the local emergency management agency. The agency reviews Providence-specific weather forecasts, including projected conditions for students walking to school and waiting at bus stops, Hart said.

District leaders weigh other costs of closing schools as well. For many students receiving free or reduced lunch, a snow closure may mean missing their only meal of the day.

To address this issue, Rochester, N.Y., is serving breakfast and lunch in six city recreation centers Friday, while public schools are closed, according to an AP report. The centers are also being used as warming sites.

Photo: McIlwain School Bus Lines mechanic Terry Logue works on getting school buses started early, as he gets them ready to run before the drivers arrive on a frigid morning, on Jan. 3, in Johnstown, Pa. --Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP

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