Harford Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan on Monday requested a feasibility study on a separate “North Harford Zone” for weather-related delays and closings. Canavan called for the study at a school board meeting yesterday where staff outlined current inclement weather procedures and acknowledged errors last Monday when schools opened on time but dismissed early under heavy snow in North Harford.
Canavan directed HCPS Chief of Administration Joe Licata and Transportation Director Charlie Taibi to form a task force to conduct the study, including a review of two previous studies on the subject. “I think we owe that to the community and the kids,” she said.
The most recent school system study on a North Harford Zone conducted in 2008 did not recommend the separate zone, citing logistical barriers among other factors. Canavan’s decision to revisit the issue was a reversal from last Tuesday, when a school spokesperson said that the separate zone was “not currently a consideration for us.”
Canavan added in an interview following yesterday’s school board meeting that the new study would necessarily involve inclement weather procedures countywide. Community members would also have a seat at the table, Canavan said.
Parents over the past week have flocked to a Facebook page petitioning the school system to form a separate North Harford zone. The page quickly swelled to over 2,400 members.
Speaking at the school board meeting Monday, parent Carol Frontera said on behalf of the group that parents wanted solutions. “Our goal is to make sure there is no child on a bus or walking to school when their safety is at risk”. She thanked Canavan for establishing the new task force and asked for parents and bus drivers to be included.
Inclement Weather Procedures
Earlier in the school board meeting, Licata reviewed current procedures for inclement weather, explaining that HCPS subscribes to national and local forecasts and works in concert with other government entities. On the day of a predicted event, Licata said, Transportation Director Taibi rises at 3:00 a.m. to drive the roads and gather information from Harford County Sheriff’s deputies on patrol, from the county emergency operations center, and state and county highway authorities. Depending on conditions, Taibi will then direct supervisors covering each section of the county to drive in their areas and report on conditions. Next, Taibi and Licata confer to decide whether to call for a delay or closure. Lastly, Licata said, they consult with the superintendent who makes the final decision.
When snow is on the ground, Licata said, the decision is “almost automatic” to have a two-hour delay or closure. Where decisions get “testy”, he said, is when at 3:30 – 4:30 in the morning, what is predicted to be snow turns out to be nothing, or, as happened last Monday, only rain. “Do we kill the day, so to speak, based on that prediction when at that period of time it may be doing nothing,” Licata said, “or do we make the decision to go, with the idea that we can close early as we’ve done many times in the past, and get some instruction in for the day?”
With some buses gearing up as early as 4:15 a.m. Taibi said, the window for decision-making closes around 4:45 a.m., otherwise the buses will be off schedule. Special education students are among those served by the earliest bus runs, Taibi said.
Licata later clarified via email:” We try to make the decisions by 4:45 to 5:00 for the system. If we need to, we hold those [early] few buses until we make a final decision.”
Notification of a delay or school closure begins at 5:00 a.m. for media and senior staff, with messages to all other employees and parents between 5:15 – 5:30, Licata said. The notification includes email, updates to the school system’s Web site, and Facebook page, plus more than 61,000 robocalls that Licata said could take 15 minutes to complete. He urged parents who were not getting messages to email the communications office with their preferred contact method and the necessary contact information.
The Week that Was
Licata said that snow was predicted in the north last Monday but in the early decision-making hours there was only rain. If the snow predictions came true by afternoon, he said, school officials figured there would be time for a partial school day and early closure, if necessary. Instead, heavy morning snow hit North Harford after buses had already gone out.
“There were some errors… there’s no doubt”, he said, but the decision then became whether to leave students in school until the storm passed or get them home as early as possible. Licata said they chose the latter because by that time the prediction had changed to a longer event with more snow accumulation.
North Harford parents on the Facebook page reported buses that day were delayed, stuck, and/or struggling on snow covered hills.
In addition to the problems in North Harford, parents countywide reported that some students in magnet programs had 2 – 3 hour bus rides home, and some were dropped off in the wrong locations.
Normally, magnet program students get transportation to and from their home school, but must get their own rides between there and home. For early dismissal days, parents were given a form earlier in the school year allowing them to pre-select a bus stop closer to their homes.
Taibi said the long bus rides last Monday were partly the result of cuts to the number of buses this year, which weren’t factored into the plan for early dismissal days. He said some existing buses have been assigned to reduce travel times in the future.
“We also had some faux pas”, he said, citing one bus driver who didn’t follow the proper procedure for drop off and some students unsure of what they were supposed to do. Calling the episodes a “learning experience” for early dismissal in the magnet programs, Taibi added, “We realize it does need to be refined and we’re working on that now”. Despite the problems, he said that all students eventually arrived home safely.
When schools were closed again on Thursday of last week, Licata said, some parents complained about the inconvenience, but there were more than a dozen road closures and widespread power outages that day, including 5-7 schools. “We’re going to err on the side of caution,” Licata said, adding that the safety of students and employees took precedence over convenience.
Regarding cancelled field trips, Licata said, those decisions are also based on weather predictions, and in some cases, the weather in other counties where buses may be headed. “Once they’re out they’re much more difficult to get back, he said.
Following the presentation, Board President Nancy Reynolds thanked Licata and Taibi for acknowledging the problems and working toward solutions.
Noting that some staff worked overnight hours to clear parking lots or drive “treacherous” roads to report on conditions, Interim Superintendent Canavan thanked all bus drivers, facilities personnel and transportation department employees: “Those people need to be acknowledged for all their hard work,” she said.