The Soft Science of Snow Days 

Here's how CofC and Charleston County School District decided to call off classes

For all the snow-related headaches that plagued the Charleston area this week — the traffic snarls on I-526, the two-and-a-half days of school closures, the chunk of ice that fell from the Ravenel Bridge superstructure and crushed a car windshield — local government officials could find one piece of solace:

At least we're not Atlanta.

The Georgia metropolis made national headlines Tuesday after local governments announced snow-day shutdowns and residents clogged the highways trying to get home and pick up their children from school. Reports came in of motorists stranded for upward of 16 hours, Home Depots and police stations being used as warming shelters, and — perhaps worst of all — hundreds of children forced to spend the night in their schools. By comparison, Charleston's gridlock was a mere inconvenience. The contrast was not lost on Charleston County School District's superintendent, Nancy McGinley, who made the call to shut schools down early on Tuesday, keep them closed Wednesday and Thursday, and open two hours late on Friday.

"So many people sent me articles about Atlanta and 'Aren't you glad you're not the superintendent in Atlanta?' But I'm glad I'm the superintendent here because we have a system," McGinley says. "Emergencies are going to happen, and they don't have to be disasters if you have a plan in place."

While McGinley ultimately makes the call on school closures, she takes a lot of advice. The district's director of security, Jeff Scott, met daily with the Charleston County Emergency Operations Center and sometimes stayed there through the night as the snowstorm approached, McGinley says. Scott reported back in conference calls with McGinley and other district officials including the director of transportation, director of facilities, and Finance and Operations Chief Michael Bobby.

McGinley says one of her main concerns was the district's aging bus fleet, which has sometimes proven unreliable in winter weather. Another lesson the district has learned from hurricane preparations is that when winds get over 40 mph, it can become unsafe to drive buses across bridges and overpasses.

"We have 400 buses, and our transportation director said, 'There are X number I'm concerned about,'" McGinley says. "If they don't start and we have to get new batteries, we're leaving children on the bus stop in inclement weather, knowing that many of the children around here don't have snow gear and cold-weather clothing."

From the director of facilities, McGinley gets information on power outages and the availability of central heat in schools. From the Emergency Operations Center, she gets updates on road closures, traffic conditions, and pockets of particularly nasty weather. On Tuesday, when most of the district shut down halfway through the day, McGinley made the call to close Jane Edwards Elementary for the entire day after the EOC noted that particularly bad weather was predicted on Edisto Island.

There is no rubric for school closures, McGinley says, but the decision is never made lightly. Tuesday morning, McGinley says she held a 4 a.m. conference call to make a final check of weather conditions and make sure it was safe to open for a half day. If the weather had made a turn for the worse, she says she was prepared to call off school for the entire day and send out robocalls to parents telling them to keep their kids home.

"Although we recognize it's inconvenient to families and it's disruptive to instruction when we close schools, I would never want to be in a situation where I was responsible for kids having to spend the night on buses or in schools. It's a big responsibility for all of us, but the good news is we don't make it in isolation."

At the College of Charleston, a downtown school with an enrollment of over 11,000, classes were closed Tuesday and Wednesday before reopening at noon Thursday. There, the decision ultimately fell to President George Benson, but the president relied heavily on input from Randy Beaver, the school's director of environmental health and safety.

Beaver says he kept close contact with the local branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, beginning on Friday when the winter storm predictions started coming in. He also checked in frequently with officials at the Citadel, MUSC, Trident Tech, and Charleston Southern University to gauge their reactions, and he sought input from the City of Charleston.

"Sometimes in conversation with the city, they're going, 'Look, don't bring any more people downtown,'" Beaver says. As with the school district, Beaver says transportation was a primary concern.

"One of the issues we're concerned about is getting students here and not being able to get them back home," he says.

Ultimately, one of the biggest impacts of school closures is on the classroom itself. Charleston County teachers are now scrambling to make up for a two-and-a-half-day gap in their lesson plans, says Kent Riddle, a kindergarten and childhood development teacher at Angel Oak Elementary School. Riddle is not one to shy away from criticizing the district — as chairman of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, he's been a vocal opponent of the district's BRIDGE plan to base salaries partly on student performance — but when it comes to the snow day closures, he thinks the district made the right call.

In his kindergarten classroom on Monday, Riddle was just getting started with teaching students the basic elements of storytelling: conflict, characters, beginning, middle, end. And he says he was making headway with the students, until the district shut down halfway through the day Tuesday.

"After a few days, you almost have to start over or review. You can't just keep going," Riddle says. "Things like that are frustrating as a teacher, but you can't control the weather, so there's no one to be mad at."

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