It’s every school superintendent’s nightmare — making the call to dismiss students from school or cancel the day altogether when snow is in the forecast and doing so too late.
That’s why on Friday night the superintendent of schools in the mountain community where I grew up posted a video apology to parents and students on the Stokes County School System’s Facebook page. He had to do it. He was right to do it. What unfolded on Friday in Stokes County was a disaster.
And it was the result of always uncertain weather forecasting where snow is concerned and superintendents everywhere in North Carolina who face this annual no-win scenario.
When I was a newspaper reporter and editor we were often inundated with phone calls or emails from parents angrily questioning why a school superintendent cancelled schools when snow was merely in the forecast or why a superintendent might dismiss school without any snow on the ground or on what basis a superintendent made the call to cancel a school day when roads in a city are clear. I understood their frustrations. Parents today are nearly as overscheduled as their kids. A student at home for the day or arriving home early wreaks havoc with a parent’s day, too.
But no superintendent wants to face what Dr. Brad Rice did on Friday when his decision to send students home from school at 1:30 p.m. meant stranded buses, students involved in accidents, students shifted to different locations without parents being notified and in some cases buses kept at the schools and parents told to come pick up their children in driving conditions that were exceptionally dangerous. The photo below was taken by my friend Mary Anne Barsness who lives in Danbury, North Carolina. The image is on N.C. 8 between the community of Meadows and Danbury — both in Stokes County. She took the photo at around 3 p.m.
According to The Stokes Record, Rice did what all superintendents do when snow is in the forecast. He began monitoring weather and the forecasts early Friday morning — around 4 a.m in his case. But the forecast didn’t hold true. Snow began falling earlier than anticipated and the temperature dropped, too. The school system also had eight field trips in progress, which further complicated the situation.
“When the weather conditions started deteriorating around 11 o’clock, we started calling to see how fast we could get those students back to school. The common theme was around 1:30 and that’s when we made that decision to cancel school,” Rice said. “The plan was then to have everybody home around 3:30. At 1:45, I was standing in the middle of the road in Danbury with a temperature gauge that roads were 38 degrees. So, we were still fine. Then the big slowflakes started falling and cooled everything off and obviously we saw what happened at that point.”
Road conditions became problematic almost immediately. Some buses were held at school. Other drivers were told to stop if they didn’t feel safe. Students were then stranded at different sites. Contacting parents became a new nightmare. Rice told the Stokes News that four students from North Stokes High School were involved in accidents, two were injured.
Thus, the public apology. “I take responsibility for all of it. I hope parents know that I’m sorry for what transpired today and that safety is extremely important to me. I have a teenage driver that drove home today. I have a wife, a teacher that drove home in it today, and I had a student on the bus today riding home. So everything anybody felt, I felt as well,” Rice said.
I’ve spoken to quite a few school superintendents over the past 30-plus years about school closing and snow. It’s one of the hardest decisions in the job. Every single one takes this very seriously, even the famous Burlington Superintendent from days gone by, Joe Sinclair, who used the mannerisms of weather-predicting goat to make the call. Superintendents are often up all night monitoring weather conditions or actually traveling the roads to see how good or bad they are. They do so because lives are at stake. But superintendents also realize that parents will second-guess the decision each time.
Every single one can relate to what Rice told The Stokes Record: “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for 5,900 students and 950 employees. We’re covering roughly 1,600 square miles in the county. With 85 bus drivers and trying to mobilize that, it’s not a snap-of-the-fingers thing. I apologize. I take full responsibility. That’s my job and in hindsight, I made a mistake today.”
The lesson for parents everywhere is simple. There is no margin for error when it comes to the lives of students. Making the call to dismiss or cancel school early is better than too late.