Tuesday’s unexpectedly sudden snowstorm produced headaches for Triangle schools, a disruption that could mark the start of several more days of missed classes for students who had four weather-related days off just last week.
School systems in Wake, Durham, Johnston, Franklin, Chatham and Harnett counties announced they’d remain closed Wednesday while Orange County said it would operate on a three-hour delay. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools will start 2 hours later than the normal start times.
The time off could continue as more snow is projected for Wednesday night.
Wednesday’s snow day comes after nearly all Triangle school systems made the decision Tuesday morning to cancel Tuesday classes. Districts such as Wake County, whose buses were on the road when school was closed, can take advantage of a state policy allowing them to count Tuesday as a school day.
The lone Triangle school system that didn’t cancel Tuesday, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, found itself facing complaints from parents about its decision to hold classes for elementary and middle schools. The complaints intensified when the district opted to dismiss school early, but delayed getting students home because buses couldn’t safely make it to campuses.
“In hindsight, we would prefer not to have picked students up for school Tuesday morning,” said Jeff Nash, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system.
Between 5 and 7 a.m. Tuesday, area districts began announcing that the opening of school would be delayed by two hours. But between 7 and 8 a.m., administrators rapidly changed the delay to a closing.
Elementary students in transit
By that time, elementary school students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro were on buses for the usual 7:50 a.m. start of school. Nash cited the age of the students as a reason the system didn’t cancel school. Other districts were transporting middle- and high-school students at the time officials reversed buses and sent them home.
“The difference is we have young ones,” Nash said. “If you turn around, parents may have already gone to work, and we did not want to leave them home alone.”
While the timing wasn’t good for Chapel Hill, it turned out to be much better for Wake County because its buses were already on the road. Under state policy, once any buses start running to pick up students, the day counts as a school day that doesn’t have to be made up.
“It is considered a start and end of a day,” said Philip Price, chief financial officer of the state Department of Public Instruction.
The policy of counting a school day when buses begin rolling dates back to a period when schools were required to meet both a minimum number of days and instructional hours each year. Now that North Carolina only requires districts to meet either a minimum number of days or hours, Price said he’ll ask the State Board of Education if members want the policy revised.
School buses also ran Tuesday morning in Durham before students were sent home. But unlike Wake school officials who said the day won’t be made up, Durham school officials said they’ll discuss the issue at Thursday’s school board meeting.
But school officials in Johnston and Orange counties said that their buses were not on the road when school was called and that they’ll have to make up the lost time. It will likely mean more Saturday classes in Orange County and could jeopardize the efforts Johnston County made last week to revamp the schedule to avoid cutting into spring break.
Tuesday’s situation in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district had its roots in a relatively unusual schedule that has high schools start last in the morning.
The system’s high schools start at 8:45 a.m. on a normal day, so district officials announced shortly after 8 a.m. that there would be a two-hour delay. Nash said that a realization that the snow was much more intense brought the announcement shortly before 9 a.m. that high schools would not open.
The district announced at 10:30 a.m. that elementary and middle schools would be dismissing early. Nash said that the announcement was made so that parents could come to their children’s school to take them home.
Nash said school officials thought there would be a “fairly sizable window between noon and 4 p.m.” when the weather would break and they could get students home by bus. That did not happen, he said.
Nash said most students were picked up by their parents. Schools fed the children snacks and kept them busy until their parents arrived or the buses finally came. In some cases that happened later than they would have normally been dismissed.
Parents voiced their frustration on Twitter.
“Wow. CHCCS really messed up the call on the snow day,” tweeted Karen Booth, a parent from Chapel Hill.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board held an emergency meeting Tuesday morning to deal with the snow days. The school year will be extended a day to June 12. The district is also canceling the late arrival it holds once a month on Thursdays.
Future snow days will be made up by holding classes on Saturdays, Nash said.
Staff writers Tammy Grubb and Mark Schultz contributed to this report.