School districts ready for decisions on snow days

January 9, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast for a drier than normal winter in the Pacific Northwest is good news for local schools, but just in case, Jo Porter and her transportation staff are prepared.

As the director of transportation for the Issaquah School District, Porter keeps a constant eye on the weather report.

If it looks like it is going to snow, then she and Connie McCoy, Laurie Mulvihill, Gayle Morgan and Lucy Anderson are out by 3 a.m., driving the roads that crisscross the 110 square miles of the school district.

“It’s an experience,” Porter said. “Nobody has been traveling where we go. You might see the newspaper delivery person, but nobody else is out there.”

With their firsthand knowledge of road conditions, the group meets back at Porter’s office to come up for a recommendation to the superintendent — whether to delay the start of schools or close them all together.

In the Lake Wash-ington District, officials take a similar tack, said district spokeswoman Kathryn Reith in an email. They have people out on the roads in the district’s 75 square miles checking conditions.

Lake Washington has areas ranging from the water in Kirkland to the Sammamish Plateau, so the elevation changes can mean drastically different conditions in different parts of the district.

Lake Washington also contracts with a meteorologist to get forecasts for conditions specific to the district.

Reith said they try to keep an eye on conditions over the course of the school day; they don’t want children to be able to get to school but not be able to get home. For both districts, a few inches of snow can mean all the difference between starting class two hours late and canceling it for the day.

“If we have three inches and there is more coming in, we will cancel school,” Porter said.

If it looks like the snow will turn to rain, she explained, then perhaps only a late start is required.

“If we go two hours late, we are going to get some sunlight,” she said. “Drivers can see better, plus it gives the city and county time to clean up the roads.”

As well, she added, it gives the transportation department time to put chains on buses and make any other necessary preparations.

The ultimate decision for both districts lies with the superintendent and is largely based on how easily the buses, not private vehicles, can get down roads.

In the Issaquah district, Cougar, Squak and Tiger mountains, with elevations reaching up to 3,000 feet, are the areas that present the most challenges. If the weather report calls for a snow level of 1,200 feet, Porter said she expects snow on at least some of the bus routes.

For either district, whatever the decision is, it’s districtwide. So, the snow may be piling up in one area while other roads are bare. But if school closes, it closes for everyone.

In Lake Washington, there are spots such as the plateau, Finn Hill and Education Hill providing spikes in elevation. Bus drivers and district officials even have specific streets they know to be trouble spots. In some cases, they shift to snow routes to avoid the worst areas, Reith said.

“It’s a no-win decision. If I close school, people are unhappy,” Porter said. “For us, we don’t get that much snow, so when we do it’s a real snow event … in our area, you do have to worry about it, because people don’t have plows on their pickups, and the city and county doesn’t have enough plows.”

In the event of inclement weather, bus drivers carry ice scrapers, GPS units, two-way radios and chains. They have gloves, warm clothes and good shoes handy in case they need to put chains on the tires.

Lake Washington drivers also carry chains, and drivers can decide an area might not be safe enough to drive through.

In that case, they contact dispatchers who then pass along that information to affected families, Reith said.

Porter said that it is not the snow that buses get stuck in, but the traffic.

“It’s the traffic that gets bottlenecked,” she said. “Everything just comes to a halt.”

Porter recommends that, if sending their kids to school that day, parents put them on the school bus rather than try to drive themselves.

The buses are really heavy vehicles, she explained, and are driven by professionals who are trained to handle bad weather.

Reith noted that parents should also assess the situation on their street.

Even if the district holds classes, it may not be safe for a given family to get to school.

 

Stay informed

In the event of bad weather, emergency information about schools and buses can be found on the radio, TV and on the districts’ websites — www.lwsd.org or www.issaquah.wednet.edu.

Learn more about snow bus routes and how late starts effect children in the Issaquah district at www.issaquah.wednet.edu as well. Click on “transportation” under the “Family Resources” tab, and then choose “Emergency Transportation bulletin” on the pop-up menu.

In the Lake Washington District, visit www.lwsd.org/Parents/Safety-Security/Pages/Emergency-Operating-Schedule.aspx.

 

Editor Ari Cetron contributed to this story.

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