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From the Desk of ACS Supt. David Burleson: ‘Why is School Closed Today?’

Dear Editor:

Many times the question is asked, “Why is school closed today?”  The answer is simple: it is not safe for student travel.  While the mission of the Avery County Schools is to graduate every student college or career ready, nothing is as important as ensuring student safety at every level.  We will always err on the side of safety when deciding to close school due to inclement weather or other hazardous situations.

Supt. Burleson
Supt. Burleson

To determine if schools need to be closed, a team of individuals working across the county follows certain procedures.  This ongoing process begins with monitoring weather forecasts. We get advice from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the sheriff’s department, emergency management, North Carolina Highway Patrol, and national and local weather centers. When there is a forecast of inclement weather, our day begins around 3 a.m. with the team driving assigned routes throughout the county. The process is long and usually time-consuming for those involved in monitoring road conditions to ensure student, staff, and community safety. Our first bus rolls at 5:30 a.m., so we must make a decision for closure or delay based on that schedule. At times a delay is called to make sure conditions are safe in ever-changing weather and temperatures. Avery County is unique in that we have elevations from 2000 to 5500 feet above sea level. This often means that we see extremely different conditions throughout the county. While you may live in an area that has no snow or ice, others may be experiencing weather with dangerous travel conditions. We have to consider the entire county, not just two or three areas.

Others often wonder why places like Boston or Colorado can still have school with more snow accumulations than we have. Again, Avery County cannot really be compared to any place that is so unlike our rural, mountainous area. Our heavy, wet snows (as compared with drier snows elsewhere), our high percentage of secondary roads, and our curvy, steep roads with dangerous embankments mean that just a few inches of snow makes for unsafe travel, especially for our buses and student drivers.

Our Calendar Committee works a year ahead of each school year to ensure that students attend 185 school days or 1,025 instructional hours, as mandated by the N.C. General Assembly.  N.C. General Statutes also mandate when we open and close school each year.  The Avery County Schools are committed to each student’s education. We will aggressively and intentionally do every thing possible to ensure that each student receives the best education available. In order to stand behind our commitment and mission, we will never sacrifice student safety, and we will, without exception, provide the safest travel and facilities for our students.

In addition, when school is closed, students are encouraged to work on teacher-prepared “snow day packets” or assignments on our learner management system. We are all concerned when our students are out of school for extended periods; this work done at home can help keep our students on track.

Here is an update on our school calendar. Last week could best be described as no school due to ice, snow, and more SNOW. Let’s hope March will be better. As of Friday, February 27, this is where we are with days missed due to inclement weather:

  • 20 days have been missed.
  • 27 hours have been missed for Delays/Early Dismissals.
  • One day has been made up using Jan. 19.
  • April 8, 9, and 10 are now student days.
  • The extended time has allowed us not to make up 8 days.
  • Thursday, June 4, and Friday, June 5, are now school days instead of workdays.
  • June 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are now student days, with June 12 now scheduled for our last day of school.

This plan currently will cover all the days we have missed.  By continuing the additional 20 minutes per school day, as over 96 percent of those taking our survey agreed with, we could take care of a few more days we might miss in March or possibly add a workday at Easter or the end of the year. We still have three holidays at Easter for spring break.

As part of Severe Weather Preparedness Week, March 1-7, Avery County Schools will practice our tornado and severe weather plans during a statewide tornado drill on March 4 at 9:30 a.m.

Severe thunderstorms, lightning and tornadoes can strike at any time, any place, even during school hours. We believe that the best way to keep our students safe is to practice what to do and where to go should severe weather strike during school. Avery County Schools have plans in place to ensure the safety of our students, staff, and faculty.

In 2014, the National Weather Service issued 81 tornado warnings for North Carolina and recorded 36 tornadoes that killed one and injured 34 people. Combined, the tornadoes caused more than $22 million in damages. The NWS also issued more than 632 severe thunderstorm warnings, and recorded more than 686 incidents of severe thunderstorms with damaging winds and/or large hail. The severe storms killed three people and injured seven others, resulting in nearly $3.5 million in damages.

State and county emergency management officials recommend having a weather radio that broadcasts alerts from the National Weather Service whenever severe weather occurs. Many tornado fatalities have occurred at night when people are asleep and less likely to receive a warning without a weather radio.

Emergency officials recommend the following safety tips:

  • Know where the nearest safe room is, such as a basement or interior room and away from windows, and go there immediately if you hear or see a tornado.
  • If driving, you should leave your vehicle immediately to seek safety in an adequate structure. Do not try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle, and do not stop under an overpass or a bridge.
  • If you are outdoors and there is no shelter available, take cover in a low-lying flat area. Watch out for flying debris.
  • Following a storm, wear sturdy shoes, long sleeves and gloves when walking on or near debris, and be aware of exposed nails and broken glass.
  • Be aware of damaged power or gas lines and electrical systems that may cause fires, electrocution or explosions.
  • Know the terms: WATCH means a tornado is possible. WARNING means a tornado has been spotted; take shelter immediately.

More information on tornadoes and overall emergency preparedness can be found online at www.ReadyNC.org. Our Avery County emergency officials encourage residents to download the free ReadyNC mobile app.


ACS Supt. David Burleson