There’s a great Peanuts cartoon in which a single flake of snow falls from the sky and one of the characters exclaims, “Close all the schools!”
Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia should have taken a look at that cartoon this morning. Instead, a wintery mix of bad timing, rush hour commute, poor planning and communication turned into an epic storm of a different, rancid kind.
What was expected to be 1-3 inches of wet, powdery snow was just that, but it didn’t start falling until around 4:30 a.m., 2 ½ hours before sunrise and with temperatures in the low 20s. While many schools in the area decided on two-hour delays — a choice usually made by 5 a.m. before the first buses roll — Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun County opted to start at the regularly scheduled time.
It was a big mistake, and one that likely will be a migraine for FCPS for some time to come.
For some reason, I woke up at 3:30 this morning and could not go back to sleep. I knew the weather was expected to be iffy at best, and figured the kids would go to school on a two-hour delay, if at all.
As the snow started to fall, I turned on the TV to look for the announcement and didn’t see one. Surprised, I woke Jill shortly after 5 a.m. and told her that it was a decision that Fairfax would regret.
Our daughters, Kate and Emma, go to high schools on opposite ends of our house, which is on the county’s southern border. Kate is a senior at Mount Vernon, while Emma is a junior at Lake Braddock.
Both girls, who are responsible drivers with a number of activities and/or work after school, said they wanted to drive alone to school. Kate’s commute involves Route 1, which is a state highway that usually is salted. Emma’s, on the other hand, involves a number of back roads that can be a challenge in tough weather.
Somewhat worried, I decided to follow Emma, who was picking up a friend, and meet her at Starbucks for some morning coffee. Even I was not prepared for the streets near our home to be a hockey rink.
We went just over a mile in an hour and saw two wrecks and multiple cars spinning out. On a hill, Emma and I were separated when a car in front of me stopped midway, and soon thereafter, I found myself playing chicken with a truck and a school bus that was fighting to gain limited traction. Fortunately, I was able to back up safely, get Emma parked, and take her home.
By this time, parents and students were already venting on social media. And it wasn’t even 7:30 a.m.
Within two hours, the hashtag #closeFCPS was trending worldwide on Twitter, reminding me once again that the hardest decisions school leaders make come down to three things: personnel, student expulsions, and weather-related closings. All three, in one key aspect or another, are no-win situations.
I learned this lesson while serving as a communications director for North Carolina's Rockingham County Schools. Geographically speaking, Rockingham County does not compare in size to Fairfax County, home to one of the nation's largest school districts. But it shared some similarities, with the potential for storms in the western end not affecting the southern or eastern portions of the county at all. So while roads were too dangerous to bypass in some areas, others would have nothing on them.
Closing schools is an all-around inconvenience. Instructional days are lost and have to be shifted around. Parents have to scramble to find child care arrangements, or be faced with the prospect of missing work or leaving their kids at home for the day. It is not a decision that is made lightly.
2013-14 was not a good weather year, as students and staff missed numerous days due to a seemingly never-ending winter. Fortunately, the weather gods have been kind in 2014-15, with only one day missed so far this school year.
In large county districts, it’s worth noting that closing schools usually is an all-or-nothing proposition. And in developing school calendars (a subject worthy of its own debate, but not now), districts build in a certain number of inclement weather days for instances such as this. When a district operates on a two-hour delay, they get credit for the instructional day, even though classes are compressed and cut short.
I’m not conservative on most things, but I am where the safety of my children is concerned. As inconvenient as closing or delaying the start of school may have been, it’s just not worth it to put your staff or students at risk. Putting teenage drivers on the road before sunrise during the early morning rush hour is scary enough.
Several Maryland school districts made what I consider to be the right call from the beginning. They started with a two-hour delay, then some closed for the day when weather conditions did not improve. A similar approach, while not ideal, would have been welcome here.
We were fortunate. Kate made it to school safely. I managed to get Emma home and then walked the mile to pick up her car. By this time, streets were finally salted and I made it home safely about 9:15.
About an hour later, Fairfax County Public Schools issued an apology, noting the decision was made with “the best information we had very early this morning.” School board member Ryan McElveen, in a Twitter post favorited more than 5,000 times in less than three hours, said the decision not to close “was terrible.”
“Clearly,” he wrote, “we screwed up. I am so sorry for all the hardship brought upon so many.”
Let’s hope everyone has learned a valuable lesson, and next time something like this comes up, perhaps everyone truly will err on the side of caution and safety.