Franken... weenies: Did Charlottesville-area schools overreact to storm?

With New York City subways and boroughs flooded, millions without power and at least 16 people dead, no one's saying Frankenstorm Sandy wasn't a terrifying monster weather event– for the northeast. But here in Charlottesville and Albemarle, less than two inches of rain fell over 48 hours, not a single road closure resulted from the storm, and power outages were limited to a pocket of households mostly in the Crozet area. And yet county and city public schools were closed Tuesday for the second day. Even UVA, generally known for its tough-it-out, hold-classes-no matter-what approach to weather, cancelled classes two days straight. What gives?

"Our primary consideration is impact on transporting kids to school on buses and on parents who drive," says County schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita, noting that County buses drive 14,000 miles a day, many of them on winding, heavily wooded country roads. School officials, Giaramita says, listened to weather forecasts calling for high winds and heavy rain on Monday into Tuesday and decided to err on the side of caution.

"The calendar has seven days built into it that are available for use as make-up days," he explains. "That's another factor that leads you to make a decision on side of safety."

The decision process was the same in Charlottesville, according to a statement from Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins who cites the ominous weather forecasts along with communication from Governor Bob McDonnell's office urging school officials "to make early preparations and decisions."

"Extreme caution was warranted," says Atkins, "since our usual means of preparation such as treating roads and watching the advance of snow or ice were not available."

Private schools, too, had to make decisions. St. Anne's-Belfield closed on Monday and Tuesday, but out in Crozet, Field School, a boys' middle school, was open on Monday and school head Todd Barnett says he rarely closes– "five times in five years," he notes. But when power at the school went out on Monday night, Barnett says, he decided to close Tuesday. "It would have been unnecessarily complicated," he says, noting that school will be back in session with or without power on Wednesday.

UVA's acting spokesperson, McGregor McCance, says the unknown and potentially severe impact of the storm, coupled with Governor Bob McDonnell's ordered closure of executive agencies on Monday and Tuesday, influenced President Teresa Sullivan's decision to cancel classes.

"There was a lot of discussion about the severity of storm, the likelihood of downed limbs, concern about student safety, faculty and staff safety," says McCance.

Sullivan, McCance says, also cited the public school closures as a factor in her decision since if UVA remained open it would cause a "hardship for employees that have kids."

According to State Climatologist Jerry Stenger, meteorologists simply couldn't predict the impact of the storm on localities at its outer edge.

"I figured the worst would come sometime after 5pm Monday and then partly into the night and then things would start to let up as things went into the day today," said Stenger on Tuesday, who also notes that Hurricane Sandy was unlike other storms in that its "degree of impact was north-south rather than east-west."

"As one went north," he says, "one found higher winds and greater mass of rainfall."

Stenger says the size of the storm, and its unpredictability, left meteorologists and school officials in a tough situation, and he thinks they made the right call even if in hindsight, it looked silly to have schools closed when there was little more than drizzle.

"It's the forecaster's dilemma," says Stenger. "You're going to be wrong a lot, but which way are you going to be wrong? Do you want people laughing at you– or bodies being stacked like cordwood?"

Measured rainfall at the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Airport from Sunday through Tuesday measured just 1.57 inches, and at the McCormick Observatory, only 1.3 inches fell. The storm caused no power outages in Charlottesville, and in Albemarle, Dominion Virginia Power reported 1,878 outages of its 40,884 Albemarle County customers on Tuesday morning, a number that had shrunk to 954 by 2pm.

But if there were some parents frustrated by the school cancellation for a storm that never materialized, there is another demographic that expresses nearly 100 percent support for school officials' decisions: students.

"They definitely did the right thing," says a local 8th grader, who interrupted a morning Xbox marathon long enough to give a brief interview to a Hook reporter, who is also his mother.

"It's all about our safety," he says. "They should probably close tomorrow, too."


First, there was more than 2 inches of rain according to the local news - over 2 inches and up to 4 in some areas. Second, every other parent in Albemarle and Charlottesville has a personal injury attorney's number programmed into their cell phone for just such an occasion to file suit vs. a local government. It comes down to liability and the schools do not want to take that risk.

Lefty liberal Cville. Its always someone else reasonability.

Hindsight is always 20/20. The wind in the Crozet area was quite frightening yesterday and last night. If you think there were a handful of outages in Crozet, please talk to some Crozetians. All of Old Trail was out, plus numerous other subdivisions along Jarman's Gap Road. Please read the book, Roar of the Heavens, about Hurricane Camille in 1969. There were many more fatalities in Nelson County than those for Hurricane Sandy. What is of particular interest in the book is that it illustrates how difficult it is to predict a hurricane. As a mother, I was always glad when the school officials were conservative with their decisions. A few times I kept my children at home when I felt it was too dangerous. Every time that I did that, the buses were turned around or sent home by 10:00. I would think that parents would be grateful to have an early decision rather than a late decision. Finally, please give your support to our administrators. They have a hard job and take responsibility for the safety of thousands of children and employees.

nice that Sullivan considered the impact on working parents, most bosses expect their employees to show up hell or high water and in this case we had neither.

An overreaction was expected after the derecho in June and the forecasts for Sandy. Better safe than sorry!

Maybe someone should hold the weather forecasters accountable for their doomsday style of predicting the weather. They spend a week spouting worst case scenarios, getting everyone hyped up in a frenzy. So even if they revise the predictions at the 11th hour, everyones hatches are already battened down. It's ridiculous.

Anyone who looked at the satellite images of this storm would have
taken a deep breath. Not even the seasoned forecasters had ever seen anything of this magnitude, and the models could not agree where the storm would turn west. This time I think everyone involved deserves a break if the projections did not pan out, and, let's be grateful - this time it was not as bad as it could have been.
Others were not so lucky.

14,000 miles a day, misprint. We would have bus drivers driving all day and night in that case.

Market Street, they mean the cumulative mileage of the whole fleet. The county's website says 11,000, but perhaps that is out of date.

Charlottesville and Albemarle have a history of over-reacting. They clearly have a policy of closing if one person who lives 10 miles up a dirt road can't make it to school. What does this do - well it makes every 2 person working family take off a vacation day to be home with their kids. My kids played outside all day Tuesday -closing school was a bad joke, one that will be done again and again. Every year the albemarle school system closes school a day before a predicted storm - and then the day turns out to be sunny with zero precipitation. We need to adopt a 90% rule - if 90% of people can get their kids to school then have school - it will make 90% of families happy. If you CHOOSE to live on a dirt road 10 miles from anywhere that's your choice - but not our problem.

While I think the point of the story -- over-reaction to potential weather events -- is certainly worth looking into, there is at least one innacuracy. There were road closures, several of them, out in the county. Some took until late Tuesday night to reopen; many others were reopened quickly. Out in the NW part of the county, several trees came down across lines, and couldn't be cleared by local residents, due to the lines. These roads were still closed in the afternoon Tuesday (but were opened sometime last evening/night).

the same people griping about the weather forecasters overhyping these storms and upset about overreaction by the school district etc. are the same folks that would be up in arms if their children sat in classrooms with no power or had to sit for hours on a bus due to downed trees blocking the roads

What do you do when the kids are at school, it starts raining buckets and then the bus drivers are recalled later to take them home? You have to wait for the bus drivers who have second jobs. Meanwhile, the water is getting higher. My parents lived in an area on the Rivanna and I went home on the bus a couple times and couldn’t get to my house because the road was covered with water all the way through our driveway. Once, my bus driver was in the process of turning around. But an elementary bus driver, who lived past my driveway, came along and said it was nothing, I could get on his bus and he would let me off at my stop. My stop was up to my knees in water. I looked at my own bus driver and said take me back to a friend’s house. Thank God the school system now has people who think about the children. Floodwaters are not to be trivialized. Those who think Albemarle overreacted must not have ever lived in a flood prone area. It may only happen once in five years, but a child’s life is worth any amount of overreaction.

I lean to safety first but truly, all decisions made by our local officials on up - comes down to - m.o.n.e.y

And we live in a liabilous society - no liberal, conservative or politics involved in that - it is a truth. Why do you think there are "Wet Floor Signs" and warning labels on coffee cups and lawn mowers. That, and common sense is lost on most.

I didn't mind my child home. Thought Monday was a bit excessive but it wasn't my call.

Part of the problem is the change in working patterns in our society .
It wasn't so long ago that one person in a family worked and the other stayed home with the kids.
With both parents now working and many single parent households, the stress of kids at home while parents must work is far greater.

Perhaps it's time we made emergency child care available for parents during these unusual weather related school cancellations.

One other consideration in rethinking how we prepare for extreme weather forecasts and events is that they seem to be occurring more frequently, which puts even greater stress on working parents .
The science supports this so we may as well bite the bullet and make plans now for a greater number of school cancellations in the future.

Article should have mentioned the high wind warnings in effect throughout the region on Monday, beginning at noon, if not earlier, and running through Tuesday evening. Would not have been realistic to send kids to school in the morning with such a potential for downed trees as soon as the winds struck.

A tree could have come crashing down on a school bus, it was the right decision

Everyone has valid points- especially C'ville Native pointing out that ours is an increasingly litigious society and this is the primary driving factor. Closing to err on the side of caution is the right course, but there's also premature decision making occurring, IMO. Detailed forecasting (via the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, specific to this locality) were quite clear that the winds and rain amounts through to around 8 p.m. Monday would be well within the range of tame storms (wind speeds in the teens and 1/2" or less of rain.) There simply wasn't much that was unpredictable about Monday.

Again, I do agree that schools need to err on the side of caution and Tuesday (and any events after normal school closing on Mon.) was an appropriate suspension of operations- not so much on Monday though.

Ejack- I'm a working parent and it drives me nuts also. The nature of my job makes it hard to be off unexpectedly. That said we've gotta swallow a lump and remind ourselves that the schools are not babysitters. On that subject I agree with NancyDrew's comments 100%. Now, granting that babysitting isn't the primary mission, there's the flip side of that coin which is the responsibility to provide the highest quality and most globally competitive education. Having students out for like 27 days of a possible 207 (attending 180) doesn't inspire confidence. Granting plenty for holidays that's still 17 days (over 3 weeks) that they're out....a significant slice of the school year. That, I think, needs more thorough exploration.

the Federal government shut down for 2 days- 1" of rain and a 55 mph gust..... keeping those kids home

Look, if they could close "sectors" within the school district, it would be a different story. The weather was quite different in northen Albie than southern part of the county. The dynamics of transportation are different in the northwest section of the county versus southeast. Albie is the line of demarcation where the flatter land of eastern Virginia becomes hilly, then mountainous lands of the Blue Ridge. I fully understand closing the schools.
I don't understand a cash-strapped county like Fluvanna closing schools for a day because of a basketball game.

R.I.P.: Earl Weaver

"Second, every other parent in Albemarle and Charlottesville has a personal injury attorney's number programmed into their cell phone for just such an occasion..."

Sweet. That'll make it so much easier to find a lawyer after one of them runs me down driving their kids to school...while talking on their cell phone.

IMO Tuesday morning should have been treated like a winter weather event, see what the roads are like at 5 AM or so and maybe open 1 or 2 hours late if necessary.

Regardless of whether school should have been canceled I'm glad we didn't get the bad winds that were possible.