NEWS- Snow job? Making the decision to close schools

Long before the first delicate flakes begin to fall, even before dark clouds gather in the sky preceding a winter storm, if you listen closely, you may hear a strange vibration in the air around Charlottesville and Albemarle. 

You wonder what it is.Thousands of killer bees? A new act in the Jack? Dozens of red storm-team jackets zipping up? Nah. It's the collective shaking and shuddering of thousands of area parents who fear that, no matter what the weather actually brings, schools will be closed– possibly for days on end.

"There was a day two weeks ago when they closed in anticipation of a storm that never showed up," says UVA  politics prof and city resident David Waldner, parent of two boys, five-year-old Dylan and three-year-old Benjamin.  

That day, Tuesday, February 13, forecasters had promised an ice storm developing overnight on Monday. Albemarle closed for the entire day; Charlottesville released elementary students at 12:30. A light sleet didn't begin until after 4pm, and it wasn't until early evening that ice fell in earnest. 

The school system believed that "immediately when it hit it would cause major issues" for buses, as well as students, and faculty in cars, says Diane Behrens, the county's director of support services and the woman in charge of cancelling school.

Despite a rapidly warming Valentine's Day morning, both school systems were closed, and then both opened two hours late on Thursday, February 15. But in a stunning twist, Albemarle opened on time that Friday, while Charlottesville– for the first time in recent memory– behaved more cautiously than its county-part, opening two hours late for a second day.

City school spokesperson Cass Cannon says the school systems don't collude, and the City figured that bus stops were still too slippery for on-time opening on Friday.

"It's not like we ever have truly hazardous conditions in Charlottesville," says Waldner, a native New Yorker, who says he considers crossing Park Street to get to Dylan's bus stop a far greater danger even on balmy days than the dustings of snow or ice that bring life in Charlottesville to a screeching halt.

County parent Amy Webb, single mom to second- and fifth-graders at Murray Elementary, says she also finds some of the decisions about school closing "surprising," but as a real estate agent who drives all over the area, she's aware that some rural county roads merit special consideration.

The County's info sheet on inclement weather claims that the transportation department decides to cancel schools when 80 percent of county roads are dangerous for large vehicles to traverse.

Behrens says transportation crews begin inspecting county roads in the wee hours, so that a decision can be made in time for the early morning closing announcements.

So far, Albemarle has missed five days this year. The county builds eight make-up days into the calendar, including four that can be tacked on at the end. Already county students will go two extra days in June, and those will be augmented by any future snow days.

Charlottesville has missed three days this year; city students will make up two of them on previously scheduled holidays and the third on June 7. Any future snow days will be added to the end of the year, says Cannon, who adds that– as in Albemarle– icy bus stops and uncleared tertiary roads often contribute to closings even when the main thoroughfares are cleared.

But should everyone miss school because buses can't reach the few people who've chosen to live on back roads?

Waldner says if schools opened but simply cancelled bus transportation, he'd gladly drive his sons to school. "It would logistically be difficult," he says, "but it would be easier for the day as a whole."

Willie Smith in the County's People Transportation Department says he's heard the idea mentioned, but it's never been seriously considered during his 15-year-tenure. "Given our topography, I'm not so sure there would be anything to be gained," says Smith. "Everyone's trying to dig out of these same areas, not just the bus drivers. If teachers or custodians couldn't get to school, I imagine we'd have quite a dilemma." 

Cannon says nixing buses but opening school won't happen in Charlottesville because school leaders feel obligated to provide transportation to students every day school is open.

But in fact, state law says school systems don't have to provide busing, says Julie Grimes, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. On a borderline snow day– when most roads are passable but some bus stops are icy– the school system could decide to suspend bus service but still keep regular school hours. 

It's not quite that simple, however.

"It doesn't make sense because their average daily attendance would be affected," says Grimes. That's a figure that schools use to apply for funding. If attendance dips sharply on enough days, it can reduce the amount of money the school system receives from state and federal funds. 

While for single parents or for families in which both parents work outside the home, snow days can be an ordeal, most parents find ways to get by. Some have retired relatives nearby, others have job flexibility that allows them to work from home.

"I'm lucky," says Webb, who can arrange her schedule to accommodate snow days and who has helpful relatives in the area. Plus, she says, "Employers here seem to be very understanding about people not showing up for work."

Not the biggest employer, however.

"UVA never closes," sighs Waldner. "They don't seem to show any appreciation for parents."

Waldner says he didn't mind trekking through snow to get to his classes before his children were born, but lugging two kids to work in inclement weather is a bit tougher.

Most area daycare centers follow the Charlottesville City snow closing schedule, so the public school closing decision affects parents of younger children as well.

Kevin Cox, whose own 8-year-old son is homeschooled, says he sees the harsh effect of snow days on other parents in the UVA lab where he works.

"The daycares all close, and you see kids wandering around Jordan Hall," says Cox. His colleagues "have to bring their children with them and do their jobs at the same time," says Cox. "The people who make these decision seem to be totally unaware."

UVA spokesperson Carol Wood did not immediately return the Hook's call, but Behrens and Cannon both say their school systems are aware of the upheaval snow days cause, and are simply trying to keep students and staff safe. Plus, adds Behrens, there's no way to please everyone.

"We get phone calls from those who think we should be in school every day," she says. Then last week, when Albemarle opened on time following the icy weather, "We got five calls because roads had not been cleared, and they couldn't understand how we could open."

Ivy Road was icy on the morning of Wednesday, February 8, and Albemarle County Schools were closed.