Of all the undesirable jobs out there, high on the list should be a local school official trying to decide whether to close schools due to an impending weather event. Whether they err on the side of caution or throw that caution to the wind, they’re going to get second-guessed more than a losing football coach.
Monday, most North Georgia school districts were shut down for the day by a threat of freezing rain and icy roads forecast for that morning. It wasn’t just Hall, Gainesville and the mountain counties; metro Atlanta school districts did the same, most making the decision in the early evening hours Sunday.
Yet when morning dawned and the streets were a bit damp but hardly frozen, many commenting on social media wondered whether taking a snow day was an overreaction. As the day went on, a few icy spots developed, one causing a 30-car pileup on Interstate 75 in northwestern Georgia near Chattanooga, Tenn. That’s where most icing took place, while the metro area and Northeast Georgia got little or nothing.
As often is the case, officials were ridiculed for pulling the plug on the school day so quickly, some suggesting, perhaps tongue in cheek, they were anxious to cancel school so everyone could gear up for the big Georgia-Alabama game that night. For parents who still had to work and find care for their children, it was a serious inconvenience.
But premature closings are not rare in an area where winter weather is as capricious and unpredictable as some ballgames. School officials, like the rest of us, are dependent upon weather forecasters to nail the prediction early. And in the South, winter storms are much harder to predict than they are elsewhere.
On Saturday, the National Weather Service already was hedging bets on how much ice we might get and how long it might last. The term “winter mix” itself indicates there’s no telling what might fall in a particular place; could be rain here and sleet just across the road. Forecasters have to factor probabilities for a wide area; they can’t nail down what it will do in a given neighborhood due to changing conditions.
Meteorologist Verona Murrell with the NWS Peachtree City office explained the quandary of predicting icy conditions in Georgia.
“We’re in a zone where the atmosphere is constantly changing,” she said Wednesday. “It’s hard to predict the timing, for one thing. The availability of moisture, if there’s enough cold air, there are a lot of factors to predicting the type of precipitation we’ll get.”
For that reason, Atlanta area forecasters have missed their share of winter storms over the years. As recently as the first week of December, North Georgia got several inches of snow from what was expected to be just a dusting. In March 1993, a massive blizzard near the start of spring caught everyone off guard.
In particular, a 2014 snowstorm hit in mid-afternoon and brought Atlanta to a standstill, leading to massive traffic jams and national ridicule, with government officials viewed as being too slow to react. Since then, state leaders have been quicker to respond to weather threats, realizing it’s better to be prepared and have nothing fall than unprepared and get caught off guard that badly again.
So we now put ourselves in the shoes of school officials watching the overnight forecast. Does even the chance of a little ice here and there make it risky to open school?
In a county like Hall, many students live along main thoroughfares where ice and snow may be cleared quickly, but others live off the beaten path and could face slick roads too treacherous for buses.
Until something is actually falling and sticking, it’s a tough call. Yet despite the grief and wisecracks officials may endure for closing school when little happens, they can’t take chances with student safety. Not only do we not want to see anyone hurt trying to negotiate icy roads to get a kid to school, no Hall taxpayer wants to face the possibility of a lawsuit if such a tragedy were to occur.
Up North where the air stays cold and snowstorms roll in off the Great Lakes like clockwork, government officials can look out the window and make easier choices. Here they have to rely on forecasts from weather pros who themselves aren’t sure what to expect, leading to situations like Monday’s, and ultimately more skepticism the next time ice or snow are in the forecast.
Rather than criticize, let’s look at the bright side: No one got hurt on an icy road, students and teachers got a day to catch up on homework and everyone was able to start their pregame tailgate without worrying about their kids getting home in one piece. As always, it could have been worse.
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