Thursday, March 13, 2014
The Lowcountry is beginning to thaw out, we think, and just as that happens, the Charleston County School Board must decide if students need to make up the four days missed by the ice storms that hit the Lowcountry last month.
District officials had to make some decisions that some thought were an inconvenience – such as a delayed school day start. And then there was the decisions to close school entirely.
Those decisions were not made lightly, according to district superintendant Dr. Nancy McGinely. And those decisions were made with the number one priority being safety.
There are 46,000 students and 5,700 employees within the CCSD system. It is a complicated process to get all of those to and from school facilities.
“We want to get as many instructional days in as possible,” said McGinely. “But we can not jeopardize anyone's safety.”
The process starts with Jeff Scott, Director of Safety and Security for CCSD.
As part of his team's everyday responsibilities, they must watch the weather.
“We have a written process we go through for determining what we're going to do in a weather event. That process includes input from all local emergency preparedness officials and input of the department heads within the district. Before the superintendant even makes a decision our report is taken into consideration beforehand,” Scott said.
Scott is the key to tracking any kind of weather emergency and gathering as much data as available. That starts a couple of days before a weather emergency and he works closely with the emergency management center. He takes information from the national weather service, intelligence from police and emergency management center looking at the pockets of the district that are slated to get the worst of the weather.
“March is the busiest time for us,” Scott said. “We have storms come in quickly whereas cold fronts allow us plenty of notice to get ready.”
He explained that in the case of severe weather an email notification from Scott goes out to the entire district leadership team alerting them to be on standby to make a decision.
Scott coordinates with national weather service and the emergency management division and they set up a regional tri-county conference call to get information on weather expectations.
Based on what Scott learns, he prepares a data file on how the weather will affect not just students getting to school, but food services, buses, teachers commuting and so on.
Scott said for example that a two-hour delay carries implications on the back side like adding a half day to the school calendar or canceling morning programs for kindergarten.
Scott said that the decision to delay school two hours was based on many factors.
“The real question mark was the buses and how they would react,” he said. “As far as canceling school we had to question whether the icy roads would be ready for the traffic going to and from schools.”
The Charleston County School District is a large district, spreading out from Edisto Island to McClelanville to Ladson to Charleston.
It encompasses urban, suburban and rural communities. The worry is how long kids must wait at a school bus stop and/or what time it would be when the very last child is dropped off.
To put it bluntly, McGinley said, “We don't make rash decisions. It's all based on on-going conversations and data.”
However, during the last ice storm a late call to cancel school had to be made due to a quickly changing weather pattern.
“The weather switched and had to make the call,” she said. “We always err on side of caution.”
When looking at the district as a whole, she explained that every area is different. Rural roads may have less lighting than say a suburban neighborhood road where kids get picked up early in the morning.
Some part of the Lowcountry may not be directly impacted by a storm, but decisions go beyond just getting the kids to school. The staff and administrators must get there too and may not live just down the road from the school where they are employed.
To put it into perspective, the school district is 100 miles from end to end (southwest to northeast) or 1000 sq. miles total. CCSD is the second largest in state.
“We have a computer system that monitors all schools and can tell us if the school is down in terms of energy or electrical power. That is crucial if school is not canceled. The heaters must be up and running to ensure a warm environment in unusually cold months,” McGinley explained.
In addition to the weather coming in we have to factor in how our school facilities will be impacted by rolling power outages.”
In some areas of the Lowcountry, it appeared as if it were only raining.
But as we all know, the weather impacted the bridges.
“We have to be confident our bus drivers can run their routes,” Scott said.
We're not going to have kids on buses in unsafe road conditions.”
Durham Bus Services does not weigh in on whether schools are open or closed. But the condition of the bus fleet is one of the data points officials consider.
According to Scott, the really low temperatures and the fact that many of the 400 buses are a number of years old, we had to be careful. “Would they even start,” he said they asked themselves.
“One, the weather goes below certain temperatures and there's a high prediction that a certain percent have would have dead batteries or frozen lines.”
Scott said that led to the delay. “We wanted to get the kids to school, but we didn't want kids waiting on the corner in frigid temperatures if the buses didn't start-up right away,” Scott said.
Bus drivers were brought in at their normal time which gave them time to get buses started and warm.
That last-minute call to close schools during the last ice storm was the right choice, McGinely pointed out, because we ended up with two days of the Ravenel Bridge being closed.
It was 9 p.m. when she made the call, but within 20 minutes a recorded parent link call was pushed out to staff and parents, the public information team used social media to get the word out as well as local media.
“I feel very good about how our system has been refined over the years,” said McGinely. “We are able to mobilize and get the information out once a decision is made within less than a half hour.”
She said the blessing of being in Charleston County is having the Emergency Operations Center, which convenes all law enforcement agencies, weather experts, school officials, road service personnel, hospital administrators and so on, so no one agency is operating in isolation, rather in concert.
“I don't make the call out of my own personal inclination,” she said. “It is definitely a well thought out, thorough decision, based on hard data.”
She said that in rare instances the district will close one or two schools and not the entire district.
But more often than not, all schools are closed.
“Normally we don't have that accurate of a forecast to close one school and not another. But the bigger reason is the teachers and staff need to be there and many live not just in Charleston County but all over Berkeley, Dorchester and Colleton Counties.
“The idea of simply saying we can be open because one school was not impacted is not taking into account the travel for the faculty.”
In addition, 47 percent of CCSD students ride a bus at some point during the day.
Overall, the severe weather process is sound and defensible and relies on data, McGinley said.
“Safety trumps everything and the vast majority of people are understanding of that.”
Mount Pleasant parent Amy Boyd agreed. “In terms of weather delays due to extreme cold temperatures, I have no opposition to their decision. Many kids ride the bus and I think it is safer for children to wait until temps rise so they are not exposed to cold. Because not every kid has adequate winter clothing.”
While she said she found the school closings extremely inconvenient, she believes caution was exercised, especially givin the closing of the Ravenel Bridge.
“Administrators and support staff don't all live in Mount Pleasant and have to travel good distances. It is not worth placing employees or students at risk.”