BY JEFF JAMES
One of the most challenging decisions a school district can make involves deciding when to close schools due to weather. These decisions are not made in a vacuum and include multiple data points. At Iredell-Statesville Schools, we rely on the National Weather Service, NOAA-The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, local Emergency Management, and N.C. Emergency Management, and we consult with the 13 school systems in our regional education consortium.
As soon as there is a threat, we begin our conversations. The data we review is in-depth and can be triangulated to help us make the right decision. Iredell County is 597 square miles and does have various weather patterns. It can be snowing in the northern end of the county and sunny in the southern end of the county.
For inclement weather purposes, we have divided the district into eight zones. Each of those zones has a person responsible for reporting back to the superintendent regarding weather-related conditions. For example, we have a contact who lives in the Harmony area who rides the roads in the early morning hours when we have inclement weather. He takes pictures and drives known bus routes in the area. At the same time, we have an employee who lives in Mooresville, who does the same thing. When we anticipate inclement weather, we usually plan to connect at about 4 a.m. to decide whether it is safe to have school for the day. In addition to our eight-person team, we also talk numerous times with Iredell County Emergency Management, law enforcement, and power companies. We consider power outages, blocked roadways, high winds, black ice, sleet, and snow.
While it may seem logical to open parts of the school system, we have choice programs that impact approximately 3,000 students. These individuals are bused to various locations depending on the program they are enrolled in. Also, our employees may live in one part of the county but work in another. We also have over 1,600 student drivers that we must consider in times of severe weather.
While buses are well built and provide excellent safety, bus drivers can face challenges, including icy roads, fallen trees, and high winds. Wind gust above 35 to 40 mph can easily topple a bus in the right circumstances.
We are cognizant that on any given day over 22,500 individuals will travel as a result of school being in session. That includes almost 300 yellow buses traveling a total of about 14,000 miles daily. It also means that hundreds of young and inexperienced high school students will take to the road in their vehicles to travel to school. If there is a possibility of ice, sleet, or snow anytime during the day, we consider it. Our students’ safety along with their families and our employees are always at the forefront of every decision we make. We cannot afford to have any accidents that injure our employees or students.
We aren’t perfect. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate as we imagined. Hindsight is always 20/20. But we collectively make the best decision with the information we have available at the time. If we can make a decision early, we do so. However, we realize that early and late choices impact family dynamics in a myriad of ways. We can’t please everyone. However, we can make decisions based on the safety of our students and staff as the number one priority.
Dr. Jeff James is the Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent.