The Richmond Register

February 1, 2013

To cancel or not to cancel? How local schools make that call

By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer

RICHMOND — Although many children across the county were thrilled to have two consecutive three-day weekends  because of inclement weather, making the decision to cancel school is “one of (school officials’) most daunting tasks,” said Erin Stewart, community education director for Madison County Schools.

Local schools closed their doors Friday as January rolled into February, bringing a fresh dusting of snow and temperatures in the teens and 20s.

But this past month, snow wasn’t the only weather condition to worry about.

January’s weather proved to be a hodgepodge of conditions representing all seasons of the year.

The month began with seasonable temperatures with very little precipitation, according to the National Weather Service forecast office in Louisville.

On Jan. 10, a frontal system from the northwest brought several waves of rain. The heaviest fell on the 13th and set daily precipitation records. The system also brought warmth, giving Bowling Green its warmest Jan. 11 in history at 70 degrees.

During the morning of Jan. 25, freezing rain spread across the southern half of Kentucky, glazing roads and outdoor objects with up to three tenths of an inch of ice, according to NWS.

Jan. 25 was the first snow day of the school year for Madison County Schools, Stewart said.

But the unpredictable weather nightmare didn’t end there.

“Nature then did a 180 just five days later when a powerful squall line tore across the nation’s eastern half between midnight and dawn on the 30th,” the NWS report said.

Tornadoes were spotted across southern Indiana and central Kentucky as temperatures soared to around 70 degrees.

Schools were then faced with more weather challenges as the NWS radar in Louisville picked up suspicious cloud rotation in central Kentucky. The county’s 85 sirens warned residents of a severe thunder storm around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, after the county’s school buses already were on the road. The storm was the kind that can generate tornadoes, the warning ominously advised.

School bus drivers begin rolling out of the county district’s lot every morning around 5:40 a.m., Stewart said. Some students already were on board their buses when the sirens began to wail Wednesday.

“Then we had to decide, if you call all the buses back, what do you do with the kids whose parents leave for work after the bus runs? We can’t take kids home to an empty house,” she said.

That day, the district’s fleet of bus drivers remained connected via radio to communicate updates on driving conditions and “no driver reported feeling uncomfortable driving their bus,” Stewart said.

Superintendent Tommy Floyd utilized a “solid network of superintendents” from across the state to provide weather updates in other areas as the storm moved this way.

Berea Community Schools buses pulled out around 6:20 a.m. Wednesday, said Superintendent Mike Hogg. When high winds blew through Berea, students would have been standing at the bus stops waiting.

“I would rather have those kids be on a school bus than standing at the bus stop – at least a bus provides some shelter,” Hogg said.

Problems with severe weather most often occur in the afternoon, and the district has delayed buses from departing in the past, he said. “Folks understand that we’re trying to err on the side of caution.”

When it comes to snow, Hogg and his transportation supervisor, Barry Kelley, leave their homes around 4:30 a.m. and survey areas that are notoriously slick.

They convene at the school board office, check the weather radar, and then make one more quick trek across the town. By 5:20 a.m., they are ready to make a call.

Berea Community families receive a phone call, a text message and/or an email when school is cancelled, Hogg said.

 Madison County Schools has a team of four consisting of the superintendent, transportation director Skip Benton, chief operations officer Marvin Welch and director of pupil personnel Randy Neeley.

The goal is to make the snow-day call around 5:30 a.m., before the district’s bus fleet starts its engines, as a fuel conservation measure, Stewart said.

The “Road Crew” divides the county in quarters and drives all the roads in their designated area, both in town and rural (watch the Road Crew’s video at http://youtu.be/I8VLBtmw5VU).

The county district transports around 7,000 students daily. The remaining 3,600 students “must be delivered by somebody,” and high schools have a lot of teenage drivers making their way to school, Stewart said. “The last thing we want is to put kids in a situation to compromise their safety.”

Calling snow days are tough, she said, because students do not want to attend school in the summer either.

Schools are required to conduct 177 days of instruction. If one day is missed, it must be made up by forgoing a scheduled holiday, or even spring break, to avoid extra summer school days.

Neither of the local districts have a school-delay procedure, but are considering the possibility for next year, they said.

What the sirens mean

Good communication with the county’s Emergency Management Agency help the districts decide whether to cancel school, said both Hogg and Stewart.

With regard to weather, the sirens are only activated when there is a thunderstorm or tornado warning, not a watch, said Carl Richards, EMA director.

During Wednesday’s storms, the warning siren indicated that suspicious cloud rotation was spotted in the area, but not necessarily a tornado, Richards said.

A warning siren is typically followed by a message about seeking shelter, he said. Although some may believe there is no need to warn citizens about mere thunderstorms, “sometimes (such storms) turn into other things,” he said.

“Everyone wants to make this black and white, but weather is not black and white,” Richards said. “It’s shades of gray, and there’s no way to make everyone happy when it comes to weather.”

In addition to weather sirens, test sirens and community emergency sirens also can be heard across the county.

However, nobody has ever heard the community emergency sound, Richards said. This alert warns citizens to “humongous emergency events,” such as a problem at the Blue Grass Army Depot or the railroad.

This alert sounds a lot like a “European police siren from an old James Bond movie,” he said.

Siren tests can be heard the first Saturday (today) and third Wednesday of every month at 12:20 p.m. Tests are not conducted if threatening weather is occurring.

Visit www.madisoncountyema.net to learn more about emergency management in Madison County.

Crystal Wylie can be reached at cwylie@richmondregister.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.