NEWARK — The Tuesday night snowstorm followed by single-digit temperatures for much of the week led to a mid-winter break for Worcester County schools this week, but the decision-making process is complicated and not always popular, according to school officials.
With an ominous forecast calling for a major winter storm and as much as four to eight inches of snow and high winds in the local area starting Tuesday afternoon, school officials early Tuesday morning made the decision to close the county public schools that day. The first snowflakes did not fall until late in the afternoon on Tuesday, leading some in the community to question the decision, but during a brief Board of Education meeting on Tuesday morning, moved up to an early start time because of the pending storm, Supervisor of Maintenance and Operations and Pupil Transportation Steve Price explained to school board members how the decision was made.
The planned closure on Monday for the Martin Luther King holiday, followed by the decision to close schools on Tuesday in advance of the storm, followed by the post-storm closures on Wednesday and Thursday had county students off for much of the week. As of mid-day Thursday, no decision had been announced for Friday. However, Friday was already scheduled for a half-day for the end of the grading period and schools are closed on Monday for a planned teacher professional day.
With just a half day planned for Friday and Monday’s already scheduled closure for a professional day, it appeared likely the county schools will be closed for six straight school days and eight total counting the weekend, leading to a break the equivalent of the holiday closure. It’s clearly not the best situation for all involved, except maybe the students, but one school official said this week was unavoidable given the conditions.
Price said the process starts as early as 3:30 a.m. He checks conditions in his area and consults with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). Price then contacts the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, confers with his counterparts in neighboring school districts to get a consensus and ultimately contacts Assistant Superintendent of Administration Lou Taylor to reach a final decision.
While some questioned the wisdom of closing the schools on Tuesday when the storm ultimately didn’t materialize until the early evening, Price said the decision was not difficult based on the rather ominous forecast.
“It’s a long, involved process,” he said. “As for today [Tuesday], the big concern is we would get everybody in school and start the day, then turn around a couple hours later and send everyone back home.”
Worcester County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson is involved in the decision-making process. Wilson said the uncertainty surrounding the forecast makes the decision to open or close the schools difficult and leaves the decision makers open to criticism one way or the other.
“We always take that into account,” he said. “If the storm doesn’t materialize as expected, we often take some criticism. As far as Tuesday goes, the thing to remember is we’ll have buses with kids still out there at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. It’s not always the regular school hours that lead to a decision.”
The storm did ultimately arrive on Tuesday evening, and while the overall snow totals did not match the predictions of up to eight inches, enough of the white stuff did fall in the local area to cover the roads with ice and drifting snow. The decision to close on Wednesday was an easy one, and despite plowing and salting, the situation had not improved by yesterday, leading officials to close again on Thursday. With Friday’s planned half day and the temperatures still well below the freezing mark, schools will likely be closed all week.
While the major roadways were mostly cleared by Thursday, the side roads and rural areas were still covered with snow and ice through much of the latter part of the week, making the closure decision an easy one for school officials. Price said one of the main concerns is the older high school students who drive themselves to and from school.
“First and foremost is the safety of the students,” he said. “One of my main concerns is the 16-year-old students in high school that aren’t used to driving. They cause me as much heartache as any other contributing factor.”
Price said the wide disparity in road conditions across Worcester and the Lower Shore factors majorly into the decision.
“We understand not every county road is going to be cleared,” he said. “Worcester County has very limited equipment and when that first snowflake falls, panic sometimes ensues. The kids and even adults are not used to it. The bus drivers are pros, but somebody coming the other way may not be a pro.”
By late in the week, most parents were at their wit’s end with kids home all week. Most families have two working parents and many have younger children in day care, complicating the daily routine when schools are closed.
Board of Education member Sara Thompson asked if the decision can be expedited to allow for parents and guardians to make plans in terms of little ones in day care and older kids being home without supervision. Taylor said those factors are part of the decision-making process.
“We do that when possible,” he said. “We understand the issues parents have with day care and planning.”
While snow and ice, poor road conditions and plummeting temperatures resulted in the major closures this week, another common natural phenomenon through much of the school year is fog. County schools occasionally have one- or two-hour fog delays, and Price said this week those decisions are complicated.
“Those are tricky, but we always err on the side of caution,” he said. “I can get up at 5 a.m. and not be able to see the hand in front of my face, and an hour later, I can see all the way to Chincoteague or vice versa. Sometimes, it happens the other way around.”