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Icy Roads Force Closure of Area Schools; Snow Day Makeup Procedure Reminder from Watauga County Schools

By Nathan Ham

For the fourth time in the 2019-20 school year, Watauga County Schools were closed due to adverse weather and road conditions. According to the updated Watauga Schools Calendar, this is the third day missed in December, in addition to one day missed in November. 

Temperatures began to slowly warm up through late morning and mid-afternoon, however, roads were very slick in areas this morning, especially on side roads outside of Boone. 

As a reminder, North Carolina schools are required to complete 1,025 hours of instruction or a minimum of 185 student days in a school year covering at least nine calendar months. The 2019-20 school calendar for Watauga County started the school year with 180 student days, 10 annual leave days, 11 holidays, nine optional teacher workdays and five mandatory workdays. Weather is the biggest impact on the school calendar, sometimes requiring the use of the optional teacher workdays, holidays and other leave days to be used as makeup days, as well as the possibility of school on Saturday. Those calendar changes and makeup plans are left to Watauga County Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott. 

According to the school system, after one or more school days are missed, Saturday school may be used as a makeup day. Saturday school will be not be held on more than two Saturdays in a four week period, and no more than two consecutive Saturdays will be used. Saturday school may be held even if schools are closed on a Friday. Saturday school will be used to make up for a day missed in the same week. Attending school during spring break, as well as adding additional days at the end of the year, may be used to make up for missed school days.

School Closing Decisions Q&A

What is the process for deciding to close schools?

By 3:30 – 4:00 a.m., a team of school system personnel are on the road to perform direct on-site inspections of road conditions throughout the county. Reports from all team members usually come in between 5:00 – 5:30 a.m. We announce a decision by 6:00 a.m. unless rapidly changing conditions require us to delay the final announcement. Because we operate as a unified school system, decisions about school closings and delays apply to all schools in the district.

Many times streets in our area are fine, yet schools close. Why not open some schools?

We operate on a county-wide calendar. Since we make up missed days, closing only some schools would put those schools on a different calendar for the rest of the year. Also, poor road conditions anywhere in the county affect our high school students and school personnel.

What are “Limited Bus Routes”?

With limited routes, buses run only on a pre-determined list of roads and avoid more dangerous secondary roads. There are two basic options, Limited Routes A, which is the option normally used, and the more restrictive Limited Routes B. Information for Limited Routes A for each school is available on the school website. Information for Limited Routes B is available on the page for school bus information under the heading For Parents and Students on the district website.

Why do we sometimes delay the opening of school?

To allow state crews time to salt and scrape roads, to provide decision-making time as conditions change, or to get more information about roads in specific areas.

Who actually makes the decision?

The superintendent is ultimately responsible. However, school staff members, the NC Department of Transportation, and other agencies supply information leading to the decision.

Why not make decisions the night before to allow more time to make arrangements?

We do this whenever we can. However, conditions often change dramatically overnight or in the early morning hours. We often cannot make the best decision without checking road conditions in the morning.

Does winter weather deprive our students of important school time?

We do not normally lose school days due to weather since we schedule make-up days as needed. (The make-up plan for snow days is available on the school calendar information page, posted under the For Parents and Students heading on the website.) A substantial number of school families lack internet access at home so we are not yet at the point where we can provide instruction at home on snow days, but teachers do have options to provide educational opportunities for students using “snow packets” and other methods that do not require online access.

Couldn’t chains be used on buses so we could have school on marginal days?

This can help buses on some routes and chains are used on occasion, but buses are not our only concern. Each day we have hundreds of high school students driving personal cars to the high school, as well as hundreds of teachers and other school employees driving to schools all across the county. One of our greatest fears is that a high school student or school employee might be hurt in an accident involving their own vehicle.

Can we be sure the system is making the best decision on school closings?

You can be sure we are making the best decision we can based on the available information, including road checks by the superintendent and other school personnel. However, we must deal with varied weather conditions across the county, sudden weather changes, and many types of roads. In making this decision, safety is our top priority.