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Snowed under: School system’s transportation department stays busy when winter weather rolls in

With more winter weather on the way, school system struggles to meet state requirements

By Jeanie Groh
jeanie.groh@salisburypost.com

The National Weather Service is calling for another round of winter weather this evening into Thursday.

A winter storm warning has been issued for most of western North Carolina, including Rowan County, from 4 p.m. this afternoon until 7 a.m. Thursday.

The National Weather Service is predicting snow accumulations between three and six inches and warns that snowfall could cause hazardous travel conditions.

Rowan-Salisbury Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann said the school system wouldn’t make a decision about Thursday classes prior to Wednesday afternoon.

“We wait until then because the weather is subject to change dramatically in a short period of time,” he said.

Both Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis City schools missed four days of previously scheduled classes last week, as well as Tuesday classes due to winter weather.

March 26 and Memorial Day, May 25, are Kannapolis City Schools’ makeup days.

Rowan-Salisbury has named March 27 as a makeup day, but is waiting until next week to determine how to make up the rest of the missed days.

Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody addressed the issue at Monday’s school board meeting.

Last week, the district’s decision to utilize March 27 as a makeup day caused a stir throughout the district, particularly on social media.

Many parents, students and teachers believed the 10 extra minutes added to each school day this year were to be used primarily as a cushion in the case of inclement weather cancelations.

Moody explained to the board and those in attendance that while the extra instructional could be used for inclement weather absences and delays, makeup days were the first choice to allow students to have more learning time.

Moody said the district tries to determine the best instructional days when assigning makeup days.

“The best instructional day for a child was one that was regularly scheduled,” she said. “Those two makeup days were approved over a year ago.”

Moody added that they try to avoid utilizing Saturdays, spring break and the last few days before graduation because they are typically the worst instructional days possible.

In North Carolina, an academic year for students is measured by the number of instructional hours in the classroom.

With the time added to each school day, the district has roughly 14 hours “to play with,” she said, adding that they could probably waive two days of absences.

But Rowan-Salisbury students have already missed five days of classes, along with one two-hour delay, and more bad weather is on the way. Even with the two makeup days and two waived days, Moody and other district officials will have to figure out how to make up the remaining time.

Moody added that teachers are in a completely different situation, however.

Teachers are required to work a minimum of seven and a half hours for 215 days.

“By adding 10 minutes to the instructional day, we didn’t add to teachers’ days,” she said.

Deciding whether or not students go to school during inclement weather is a difficult job, but somebody has to do it.

In the Rowan-Salisbury School System, it’s Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody that makes the final call, but she couldn’t do it without the help of Director of Transportation Tim Beck and his team in the district’s transportation department.

According to Beck, roughly half of Rowan-Salisbury’s 20,000 students ride the bus, but safety concerns during winter weather go beyond the big yellow buses.

“We’re not just interested in looking at the 10,000 students that ride buses, we’re looking at the 20,000 who have to get to school,” he said Tuesday afternoon during a mid-morning road condition check.

Although classes were canceled for students Tuesday, teachers were given the choice of taking an optional workday. With teachers at work, Beck spent the day continuously monitoring road and weather conditions to ensure the teachers’ safety as they worked.

As he left the district’s bus garage on Heilig Road to check on some trouble spots his mechanics talked about, Beck explained how snow day decisions are made.

When winter weather strikes, he and his team hit the roads to see what conditions are like in different parts of the county.

There are eight mechanics that work for the school system, and they’re broken into two shifts of four. The four mechanics on duty split up and each take a region – north, south, east or west – of the county, checking the curves, hills, bridges, shaded and low lying areas and any other troublesome spots.

“It is a huge county,” Beck said, adding that the district’s bus routes cover “pretty much every road out there.”

“We check secondary roads that typically aren’t going to be treated,” he said.

With a county the size of Rowan, road and weather conditions can vary drastically from one side to another, Beck added as he headed south of Salisbury toward Glover Road. Although it had stopped snowing earlier and temperatures were rising, there was still a considerable amount of slush on the roads.

Glover Road, still completely covered in snow, was in worse condition than most other roads.

“It’s 33 degrees now,” Beck said as he measured the road temperature with a digital laser thermometer.

He explained that the school system’s goal is to make a decision the night before, but with the unpredictable nature of weather, that’s not always a possibility.

If a decision can’t be made between 5-5:30 p.m., it’s deferred until the early next morning – 4:45 a.m. to be exact.

“It’s really tough to make a decision that early in the morning,” Beck said.

While the decision must be made by 4:45 a.m., the process begins around 3:30 a.m.

“Between 3:30 and 4, we’re out on the roads,” he said, adding that he, along with each of the mechanics and the department supervisor spend 20-30 minutes driving the roads, getting road and bridge temperatures, communicating via radio and sending in pictures of road conditions.

Beck makes it to his office on Heilig Road by 4 a.m., where he begins a dialogue with the Department of Transportation, Rowan County Emergency Services and other school systems nearby.

“It’s pretty hectic in the mornings,” he said.

“We’re in constant contact with other counties,” Beck said. “It’s a great network that we have.”

Because the district’s schools have tiered start times to accommodate shared buses, the Rowan-Salisbury School System has one of the earliest start times in the region. Early College, Exceptional Children and choice school students from across the county also require an earlier start.

“Four forty-five is our cutoff,” Beck said.

That gives bus drivers who typically start their routes 5-5:15 a.m. enough notice so they don’t leave home in unsafe conditions.

“We try to let them know as early as we can,” Beck said.

He said the past few days have been easy to call, but sometimes precipitation doesn’t begin until after their cutoff, making it harder to make the best call.

“We always err on the side of safety,” he said.

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