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School officials faced uncertain forecast

POSTED: January 29, 2014 7:24 p.m.

Wintry weather and school buses on roads rarely mix, which is why both Will Schofield and Merrianne Dyer were on the edge of their seats Monday night.

“(Tuesday) was interesting,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Schofield said. “On Monday we were beginning to watch the Wednesday weather, and we weren’t too concerned about what we saw for Tuesday. When the weather is questionable, we are up monitoring throughout the night. Maps started to change after midnight (on Monday).”

The threat of snow and ice led to Hall County Schools releasing students early Tuesday, as well as both Hall and Gainesville closing Wednesday and today.

To get to their decisions, both Schofield and Dyer, Gainesville City Schools superintendent, attended a 9 a.m. briefing Tuesday on the latest information from the National Weather Service. That’s when they realized action was needed to get students home safely before snow and icy conditions hit.

“A 9 a.m. National Weather Service briefing was the last piece of information we needed,” Schofield said. “‘Uncertainty’ with accumulation bands moving further north and ‘Atlanta commuters are advised to leave for home early today’ were all we needed to hear.”

Hall County School District students were released two hours earlier than usual, as flurries began flying.

Hall’s Director of Transportation Jewel Armour reported elementary students were home by 2 p.m.; all students and the majority of employees were home by 3:05 that afternoon.

Gainesville classrooms remained in session all day, though after-school events were canceled. Middle and high school students were released as soon as buses arrived at the schools, expecting to arrive home five to 10 minutes early. All buses were finished with local runs by 4:40.

Gainesville Transportation Director Jerry Castleberry said there was only one issue.

“A bus (had) a problem navigating the hill on Springview Drive,” he said. “Everybody made it home safely.”

Buses were even able to pick up students attending the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf early enough Tuesday to be back in Gainesville by 1:30 p.m. There was one bus coming back from Laurel Heights, a private treatment center the city school system contracts with for students with cases of autism. That bus, with three students, did not return until 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“Our decision to remain on regular schedule was made based on our experience that, when we (release early), there are parents who cannot get home or do not get the message,” Dyer said. “Then we have young children who are unable to get in their homes, and/or brought home to empty homes.”

She added that some parents did pick up their children early, and also pointed out it’s a good thing the two school systems released at separate times.

“The problems in Atlanta were primarily caused by the simultaneous release of school districts and parents leaving work to get to them,” she said.

School officials continued monitoring the situation, deciding to close schools Wednesday shortly after 5 the evening before.

Another area school, Lakeview Academy, decided to not take the risk Tuesday and closed schools before snowflakes began to fall.

“We have students from a wide geographic area,” Communications Director Sondra Berry said. “Not to mention teenage drivers. We thought we’d play it safe and close.”

The school was also closed Wednesday, and remains so today.

“Once we saw that Gainesville was going to be in the (winter weather) advisory, we made the decision right there to close school and not do a late start or early dismissal,” Headmaster John Kennedy said. “The weather is so unpredictable.”

It may feel like an extra vacation day for the students and staff, but decisions about any makeup days will be made by the respective school boards at a future date. In fact, Lakeview Academy has enacted what it calls “remote school,” in which students are given assignments via their teachers’ websites, using online textbooks and Google services to remain up to date on assignments.

Schools are again closed today, with weather and emergency officials warning any snow or ice that melted during Wednesday’s sunshine could freeze overnight, creating hazardous road conditions.

“We are in constant communication with Emergency Medical Services,” Schofield said. “Our people and Hall (sheriff’s) deputies are checking back roads and our parking lots.”


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