Making the Call: Snow Days
It’s almost 6 a.m. on a cold winter morning.
A fresh blanket of snow has covered the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The phone rings — it’s an automated message.
“Watauga County Schools will be closed for students and staff.”
Cue the choir.
For students, it’s likely a welcome reprieve from the doldrums of shuffling to and from classes on a bitterly cold morning.
Since the beginning of January and the return of more traditional mountain weather, that 6 a.m. phone call is probably resembling the scene in the movie, “Groundhog Day,” when Bill Murray’s character rolls over in bed to hit the alarm to signal the exact same beginning to another snow day.
It can seem unrelenting.
You don’t have to explain this monotony in routine to the mechanics and garage staff at the Watauga County Schools main office.
If fresh snow arrives in the area overnight, the day at the bus garage can start much earlier.
Jeff Lyons, transportation director at WCS, said his day begins at 2:30 a.m. if the operation of schools is in question due to winter weather.
“I’m calling the sheriff’s office and the local police departments to get an idea of what road patrol officers are experiencing,” Lyons said. “I try to get a whole lot of information from different sources. I’m checking weather forecasts … everything I can, so I know what to expect. And sometimes, they get it wrong, too.”
While classes don’t start until 8 a.m., the first buses are hitting the roads almost three hours before the tardy bell. Time is of the essence, and a decision on the operation of schools that day has to be made as soon as possible.
By 3:30 a.m., Lyons has assembled his road crews, which patrol their respective quadrants of the county to get firsthand feedback of travel conditions.
“Time-wise, we can’t check every single road, but historically, certain roads have gotten worse than others,” Lyons said. “We try to check the most we can.”
Road conditions aren’t the only headache the bus garage is dealing with.
“If we have not had school the day before, we are out making sure all of the buses will start,” Lyons said. “Diesel fuel is thicker than gasoline, so it takes more to warm up. On cold days like we’ve had, we put some spare buses in the garage in case of breakdowns. In one of our neighboring counties, the fuel was actually gelling in the lines while going down the road and shutting the buses down.”
The logistics of transporting 1,800 students on 41 buses in less than two and a half hour time span can be daunting enough without slick spots throwing a proverbial wrench in the mix.
Advancements in telecommunications have alleviated some of those early morning headaches, but as the deadline for a decision on schools nears, all available resources are needed to make sure the right call is made.
“We try to make a decision based on the information we have available at that time,” Lyons said. “We have to make a decision based on the safety of our students and staff, because that’s our No. 1 priority. I’ve been doing this for 19 years, and I now have two kids of my own. It’s a very personal thing for me.”
To help get that message out as quickly as possible, WCS utilizes a variety of channels, including local media, the schools’ websites and particularly the automated phone message system.
“It has become hugely important in communicating with parents,” said Marshall Ashcraft, WCS public information director. “It’s a default system. If you are a parent and have a child in the school system, you are put into the system. It’s the closest we have to a universal system. The system dials not only a primary number, but also an alternate.”
The problems facing a rural and mountainous school district are unique, which can make the final call harder to make than what more densely populated districts might have to consider.
“It’s a little harder to get consistently accurate forecasts in this area, because the weather changes and it’s so localized,” Ashcraft said. “There’s such a large variation in elevation. Our difference in elevation is 1,500 miles of latitude. We’ve got elevations at 4,500 feet and some in the 2,000-foot range.”
With the unreliability of standard forecasts, sometimes school officials have to take a look at the roads firsthand. “There’s just no substitute for having people out in each area physically looking at the roads,” Ashcraft said.
For more information on WCS, visit http://www.watauga.k12.nc.us. To check school delays, you can also call (828) 264-0200.