Brittney Burns — Staff Writer
The decision to whether or not to hold school during the winter months is something the Macon County school system doesn’t take lightly. While meteorologist’s forecasts are not always reliable, the school system is tasked with making a call that doesn’t compromise the education of students, while ensuring all students and staff are safe in the event of winter weather.
On Monday morning, a pre-scheduled meeting was held by Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin to help explain the decision process for whether or not to have school in the event of winter weather and/or icy, snowy roads. Monday’s meeting came at the perfect time, as school on Monday, which would have been the first day of the spring semester for Macon County students, was declared a snow day due to frigid temperatures and the several inches of snow that fell throughout the county over the weekend.
Dr. Baldwin emphasized the importance of safety when making the call, which is a decision that often causes backlash for the school system.
“Last year it started snowing around 11 a.m. and we made the decision not to let school out at that time,” said Dr. Baldwin. “If we would have released school, students would have been on the road while it was snowing, which would have been dangerous. We decided to wait, and the snow quit and it warmed. So by the time students were on the buses, it had stopped snowing and had warmed up, but we got a lot of questions as to why we didn’t immediately release school. If we would have as soon as it started snowing, buses would have been operating in more dangerous conditions.”
Macon County Schools transports 2,200 students per day on 52 school buses that combined, cover 2,932 miles per day. Students in Macon County are on buses for a combined 148 hours and 27 minutes each day. The decision to call school in the morning has to be made by 5:15 a.m. each day, as the first bus in the county leaves to begin its route at 5:30 a.m.
“Our goal is to provide parents with accurate information as soon as possible,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Bus drivers need to be notified prior to 5:15 a.m. Parents also need time to arrange for someone to be home for small children. Finally, buses are on the road for up to two hours per route. We are not always going to be be accurate, but our goal is to err on the side of safety.”
What goes into calling school?
Several factors go in to the district’s decision on whether or not to hold school in the event of inclement weather. Bus drivers and district personnel personally drive the routes of the school buses to get a firsthand look at the roads. Roads that are known to be problem areas are always checked and assessed.
The district monitors weather conditions through various weather forecasts such as the Weather Channel, local tv and radio stations, and Intellicast.
When snow is predicted, the decision to delay or cancel school will be made prior to the time that buses are scheduled to depart. It in not uncommon for weather events to occur from 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., while buses are in transit. Once buses are on the road, officials must weigh the dangers of travel against leaving students at bus stops, or at home unattended.
Predicted snow gets different consideration than predicted ice. According to Baldwin, when ice is predicted in the forecast, more caution will be used in adjusting the schedule.
Once inclement weather arrives, school personnel visually inspect road conditions. School officials also communicate with Macon County emergency dispatch, local law enforcement, and North Carolina Department of Transportation to determine the locations of unsafe road conditions.
If inclement arrives while students are in school, the safest place for students to be at the time, may be in a school building rather than on the road, Dr. Baldwin noted. Forecasts are monitored, but an early dismissal requires 1.5 to 2 hours to get drivers in place and to put buses on the road, so in order to dismiss school early, Macon County Schools must act on what the weather is predicted to be in two to four hours. Dr. Baldwin noted that in some cases, there are occasions when weather arrives that is unpredicted or it may arrive sooner or is heavier than predicted.
Dr. Baldwin stressed the importance that above all else, parents should use their own discretion in making a decision regarding school travel. Weather conditions may be unexpected and road conditions may change once buses begin their routes. If a parent feels travel is unsafe, they should not permit their child to travel either on a school bus or a personal vehicle. Baldwin noted that in the event of winter weather, absences are always easier to work out and schoolwork is easier to make up, but a lost life can’t be recovered.
In addition to considering the safety of school buses on the roads, Dr. Baldwin noted that the district also has to consider student drivers who drive to and from school as well.
Types of calls made by the school district
Macon County Schools can cancel school altogether, like Monday, or call a two or three hour delay. In addition to a delay, the school system has the option of including special provisions, such as no buses on icy roads.
A new process in deciding whether or not to run buses during inclement weather was announced Monday. In the past, the school system has made the announcement that while school was in session, buses would not run on icy roads. To clarify that provision, the school district separated the Franklin area schools into four districts – South Macon, Iotla Valley, East Franklin, and Cartoogechaye. From there, the system comprised a list of specific roads in those areas that are commonly hazardous during inclement weather.
Now, when the district is making calls on whether or not to run buses, the provision may be given that buses won’t operate on the icy roads in the South Macon district. So while some buses may run in that district, the specific roads identified on the icy road list, will not have buses operate on them.
“This is just a way to offer additional clarification for parents,” said Macon County Schools Transportation Director Todd Gibbs. “While some parents may have lived in that district for a while and know their road is generally icy, new families in that area, or families with kids just starting school may not be sure, and this way they won’t be left wondering.”
How parents are notified
Renee Burt, who works in the school system as the public information officer is tasked with notifying school system employees as well as parents. As soon as a decision is made to cancel or delay schools, or prohibit what roads buses drive on, Burt begins the process to notify the public. She first notifies school principals, followed by school bus drivers, and then school cafeteria personnel, who are often the first to arrive at school and begin preparing food for the day.
She next begins the task of notifying parents and staff of Macon County Schools. There are 4,400 students enrolled in the county schools and 600 staff, so the process does take time.
Any changes to the regular school schedule is posted on the Macon County Schools website and Facebook page. Burt also sends a notification to all media sources from radio, newspapers, and television stations such as WLOS and WYFF and others.
Through the school system’s Parent Link system, parents who are registered in the Parent Link system can receive an email, phone call or text message from the system making them aware of the most current situation. Burt noted that there is a large number of emails, phone calls and text messages that come back to her office as “undeliverable” due to outdated information on file with the parent link system. Ensuring that a family’s most up-to-date information is available to the district for such calls and notifications are crucial for the process. To ensure parents and guardians are registered with Parent Link or to update their contact information, Dr. Baldwin noted that the family should contact the data manager at their respective school.
With the new designation of “no buses on icy roads” for specific parts of the county, the notification process will include that designation as well if it is necessary.
Making up the time missed
North Carolina state statute requires that students are in class for 1,025 hours, which equates to roughly 143 days. When constructing the school calendar, makeup days are built in to ensure the hour requirement is met. This year’s school calendar includes 1,071 hours. Monday’s missed school day will be made up however, according to Dr. Baldwin, on either Feb. 20 or March 10. From there, any additional missed school days can be absorbed based on the 46-hour cushion built into the calendar. In the event that a significant number of days are missed due to weather, additional makeup days can be identified by the district later.
While students were not in school on Monday, some teachers were able to go to work as the school day was designated as an optional teacher workday. Dr. Baldwin noted that optional teacher workdays are just that, optional.
“Teachers are on a contract with the state that requires them to work for 215 days,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Optional teacher work days give them the chance to meet that requirement rather than taking annual leave days.”
Gibbs said that some Macon County teachers may work down the street from the school they teach at, while others travel from Swain and Jackson counties. Optional teacher workdays allow a teacher to assess road conditions in their area and decide for themselves whether or not they should work.