Triangle school districts defend Tuesday snow decisions

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 28, 2014 

The belated arrival of Tuesday’s winter storm may have been cheered by some students, but it caused headaches for their parents and school officials.

Triangle school districts sent students home early on Tuesday or, in the case of Wake County, canceled classes in anticipation of snow arriving in the afternoon. School officials said they have no regrets about their decisions that were based on projections from meteorologists.

“We made the decision based on the best forecast data possible, erring on the side of student safety and giving parents as early a notification as possible,” said Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for the Durham school system, which sent students home three hours early Tuesday.

Here are answers to questions about how decisions were made about classes on Tuesday and how students will make up the snow day.

Q: Why did Wake County decide Monday evening to cancel school Tuesday when it wasn't supposed to start snowing until after noon?

A: Wake County school officials announced shortly after 9:30 p.m. Monday that school would be closed Tuesday.

“When you look at the big picture, we have no regrets,” said Renee McCoy, a Wake schools spokeswoman. “The models at the time predicted snow would begin at noon. We took precautions to protect our students.”

McCoy said the option used in other school districts of sending students home early wasn’t used because of the size of the Wake school system, with more than 75,000 bus riders on 950 buses. She said it takes three hours to finish the runs.

Wake uses a three-tier bus system, meaning the same bus may run two or three routes each morning and afternoon. Since most elementary schools are on the third run, McCoy said officials were worried about the youngest students being on the road when conditions could get hazardous.

Making the call Monday night also gave parents more time to make decisions about their jobs and child care, said Stella Shelton, another Wake schools spokeswoman.

Another concern for Wake is what happened on Jan. 19, 2005, when a combination of snow, ice and traffic jams resulted in nearly 3,000 students spending the night at school because buses couldn’t safely get them home.

“Though roads are now brined, we do not want to bring about a repeat of the 2005 countywide Traffic Jam!” Shelton said in an email message.

Q: When will Wake County students make up the missed time?

A: Traditional-calendar and modified-calendar students will have class on Feb. 17 – Presidents Day. Year-round students will go to school this Saturday – Feb. 1. Early college and single-sex leadership academy students will have class May 29.

Q: Why did most Triangle school districts send students home early on Tuesday?

A: Starting this school year, North Carolina school districts were required to have either 185 days of classes or 1,025 hours of instruction. For many years, the requirement was 180 days and 1,000 hours. Most school districts opted to go with 1,025 hours this school year.

With snow forecast to arrive Tuesday afternoon, Chatham, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district all sent their students home early. Students got out as early as 10 a.m. in Chatham County and as late as 1:30 p.m. at Chapel Hill-Carrboro high schools.

“In 20/20 hindsight, we could have had a full day of school,” said Jeff Nash, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, which waited until 6 a.m. Tuesday to make the call. “We’re glad that we didn’t close. We would have regretted that.”

Students in Johnston County got between 2-1/2 hours and three hours in school Tuesday, including time for breakfast and lunch. The few hours of school will help the district meet the 1,025-hour requirement without needing to use a snow day, said Tracey Peedin Jones, a Johnston County schools spokeswoman.

“Students were able to get in some education,” Jones said. “We were able to get them home safely, and we don’t have to make up that day.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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