School officials are reviewing better ways of getting last-minute alerts out to parents, after last Friday’s freezing rain shut down Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools just before lunchtime.
Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Todd LoFrese of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School says that last week’s freezing rain was one of those weather events that catches everybody off-guard.
He says it’s because there’s so much guesswork involved.
“It always seems that we’re like, on the edge of the forecast, and the temperature, both in terms of the amounts, and where we’re going to be talking about rain or snow.” says LoFrese. “It just always seems like Chapel Hill and Carrboro are right on that dividing line.”
Another problem was that the storm really hit Orange County hard by later in the morning, which had school officials scrambling to get the word out about closings.
“Friday was definitely a challenge,” says LoFrese. “Conditions were such that in our district, when we made the call, things looked good. It was raining. The Weather Service had indicated that temperatures were rising. We had checked power in our schools around 6 o’clock, and all our systems were good.”
Then, the weather took a quick and nasty turn. LoFrese says the school system received the first reports of school power outages between 7 and 8 a.m.
By mid-morning, five schools were without power. CHCCS made the decision that if power was not restored by 11:30, the five affected schools would be dismissed for the day.
“Obviously, the temperatures inside the schools were a concerning factor,” he says. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to dismiss students out into an unsafe travel situation.”
The word went out around 10:45, and CHCCS was informed at 11 a.m. that travel conditions were OK for dismissal.
But officials felt that safe-travel window closing rapidly, when high-wind warnings for the afternoon started coming in.
So the decision was made to close all schools in the district that day.
LoFrese says the message went out around 11:50 that the five schools without power would be dismissed first, with the remaining schools to be closed on a scheduled rollout.
He admits that sending the information out took longer than expected. The situation was complicated by the loss of phone service.
“We recognized that we weren’t providing a long window for parents to get home,” he says. “And so we contacted the schools and held buses at the school, beyond what we had originally planned for, to provide time for parents to get home.”
LoFrese says that one bright spot was a policy of some elementary schools to contact parents directly from classrooms.
He says he’s only heard a couple of reports from concerned parents whose children were delivered back to their bus stops without parents being notified first.
Lofrese says that the school system will work to improve communications in preparation for the next weather emergency, as well as making sure schools get more and quicker updates on weather conditions.