With winter approaching, Watauga County Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott is reminding parents and families how the school system makes and communicates decisions about school closings and other changes resulting from inclement weather.
“We always want to keep schools open on a regular schedule when it’s safe to do so, but winter weather sometimes forces us to change school schedules and bus routes,” Elliott said. “We realize that has a big effect on families and we want them to understand how we make and announce our decisions in response to inclement weather.”
When winter precipitation begins overnight, the process for making decisions about the school schedule kicks off at 3 a.m. when Transportation Director Jeff Lyons gathers updates on current road and weather conditions from local law enforcement, the N.C. Department of Transportation, and the National Weather Service.
Lyons also checks the latest weather forecasts and weather radar. By 3:30 a.m., a road check team composed of Elliott, Lyons and at least four other school personnel begins driving assigned routes to check road conditions throughout Watauga County. Lyons and Elliott both routinely participate in a morning live conference call with NWS meteorologists in our region at 4:30 a.m.
Over the next 60-90 minutes, members of the road check team complete their routes and report the conditions in their areas. The final decision about school schedules and bus routes is made by the superintendent based on the road checks, information from NCDOT, local law enforcement, and the latest weather forecasts.
That decision is normally made before the first school bus departs on its route at 5:25 a.m. and is promptly announced in seven different ways: a statement at the top of all pages of school websites at www.watauga.k12.nc.us; via local radio and TV stations; by automated phone messages, e-mail, and text messages; via Twitter (@WataugaSchools); and through a recorded “snow line” message at (828) 264-0200.
Elliott said each year there are times when deciding whether schools can remain open is especially difficult.
“We live in a county where road and weather conditions often differ significantly from one community to the next and conditions are often still changing when we have to make the decision,” Elliott said. “Our buses and student drivers travel over roads ranging from around 1900 feet of elevation to over 5500 feet. There will be days when families living in areas with clear roads will wonder why schools are closed. However, we operate as a unified school system, and we have to make a decision based on what is safe for families throughout the county and for our student drivers at the high school.”
Limited school bus routes are used when road conditions are acceptable on more heavily traveled roads but not on all roads. The usual limited route option is named “Limited Routes A.”
A more restrictive limited route option, consisting mostly of numbered U.S. and state highways, is called “Limited Routes B.” Details of both limited route options are available on each school website and printed copies are available on request from a school office.
On very rare occasions, schools may be delayed or closed due to extremely bitter cold even when roads are clear. Very low temperatures, especially if combined with wind, can pose a threat to young children. These conditions also make it difficult to start and operate the diesel fueled school buses that carry about 40 percent of students to school each day.
Elliott said he understands and sympathizes with parent concerns about school closings.
“We know it’s difficult for families when school schedules change, but we live in the mountains, and harsh winter weather is a part of living in this beautiful place,” Elliott said. “Please know we will make the best decisions we possibly can using all the information available at the time, and that the safety of our students, their families, and our employees is our highest priority in making the call. We ask for everyone’s patience and understanding as we face the challenges of winter weather in the months ahead.”
When schools are closed for inclement weather, the missed days are made up at a later date.
Holding classes on Saturday to make up missed day is an option after the very first snow day. However, Saturdays will only be used for makeup during a week in which schools have been closed at least one day; there will be no six day weeks.
The plan for making up missed days is available under the calendar heading on the WCS website and a paper copy can be requested from any school office. In making vacation plans, families need to remember that spring break can be shortened or eliminated and that the school year may extend well into June if a severe winter results in frequent school closings.
Watauga County Schools are closed an average of approximately 15 days per year for snow and ice, with wide variation around that average. The number of days missed has ranged from a low of four days in 1990-91 to a peak of 39 days in 1977-78.