A hurricane and an ice storm have cost Johnston County schools about a week and a half of classes this year. After both storms, pockets of impassable roads ended up dictating school closures for the rest of the expansive county. And Superintendent Ross Renfrow told town leaders recently that countywide closures are likely to remain the norm.
Heavy flooding, washed-out roads and water and power woes at some Johnston schools kept kids out of class for a week after Hurricane Matthew. But the problems weren’t countywide; Clayton could have likely returned to class before South Johnston. Similarly, last month’s ice storm saw parts of Johnston thaw before others, but a few still-icy roads kept schools closed countywide.
Clayton Town Manager Adam Lindsay asked Renfrow if there was another way.
“Is there an opportunity to open or close schools more regionally instead of, say, system wide?” Lindsay asked during a meeting Renfrow held with town leaders.
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Renfrow said some states give districts flexibility with school closings when the weather turns bad, but the superintendent said he was unaware of anything like that going on in North Carolina. In Johnston specifically, closing one part of the county while everyone else went to school could be problematic, Renfrow said.
“In a school system like Johnston County that is so big, you’d say, ‘Why don’t you close everything north of (U.S.) 70 or south, or everything east of (Interstate) 95 or everything west of 95?’ ” Renfrow said. “We have so many buses that go all over the county for programs and academies. ... If we could isolate it and say the South Johnston attendance area was the hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew and the roads were good in the northern part of the county for the most part. You just create so many issues in terms of services that we provide on a daily basis for all those kids.”
Renfrow said Early College alone uses 13 buses driving all over the county to ferry kids to and from Johnston Community College in Smithfield every day.
At the same time, closing schools countywide can be hard on Johnston high school students who attend classes at the community college.
“Something you get into always with JCC, we make decisions based on what’s best for our students, JCC makes a decision on what’s best for their students,” Renfrow said. “If we’re closed, we’re closed; we’re not running our buses. If JCC is open and that student can’t get there because we’re not running our buses, it counts as an absence.
“Once you get so many absences in a JCC class, you’re dropped. So this last time when they were open and we were closed, we had several students who got dropped because that was the threshold of absences for them. So they have to go through a waiver process to get their seat back.”
When classes are canceled countywide but the roads aren’t bad everywhere, Renfrow said he hears about it.
“We hear from plenty of folks, ‘There’s nothing wrong with my road. I’m ready to send my youngest back to school. Why are we out?’ ” Renfrow said.
Renfrow pledged to keep the idea on his radar and discuss it with other superintendents around the state.
“It’s not something I’m aware of anyone doing now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something we shouldn’t consider,” Renfrow said.