WCS explains winter weather decisions
by Kellen Short
On the eve of the system's first weather-related delay of the 2013-14 year, school officials sat down Tuesday to share how they make decisions for a school system that routinely misses double-digit days each year.
During the last 38 years, the schools have closed between four and 39 school days each year due to weather issues, primarily in winter.
"The weather can change very quickly, and our No. 1 priority ... is the safety of all of our students and staff," said interim Superintendent David Fonseca.
This winter, staff will continue to begin monitoring road conditions starting around 3:30 a.m., said Transportation Director Jeff Lyons. He and four other men -- all born and raised in the mountains, he said -- will travel roads across the county to check conditions.
"I've got two kids, and I kind of look at it on a basis of whether I would want them on the road," Lyons said, adding that teen drivers at Watauga High are among those he considers. " ... They're seeing brand new situations while they're behind the wheel, and we have to think about that."
Lyons said he also may contact the National Weather Service, Beech Mountain Police Department, Watauga County Communications and the N.C. Highway Patrol to get more information to communicate to the superintendent, who makes the final decision.
"We try to make a decision by at least 5:30 (a.m.), because our first bus actually leaves the school by then," Lyons said.
The decision -- regular schedule, delay or cancellation -- is then conveyed to the community via the Snow Line (828-264-0200), the Alert Now telephone message system, email, the WCS website and local media.
Because it contains about 1,800 telephone numbers, the Alert Now system takes about 15 minutes to reach all families, according to school officials. But when an "emergency" alert is sent, it takes about 30 to 35 minutes for all to receive the message, as it is sent to multiple telephone numbers for each family.
The "emergency" alert messages are used for early release days and in cases when a two-hour delay becomes a school closure.
The school system is now working to add text message capabilities to its system, hoping to have that feature in place by the end of the school year, said Wayne Eberle, the voice behind the "Snow Line."
Watauga County Schools also plans to install two-way radios and GPS systems on each school bus at a cost of $62,000, Lyons said. Those tools will help the schools more efficiently communicate with drivers, who are not permitted to talk on telephones while driving. The school system also will be able to see the location of each bus on an electronic mapping program as it travels, he said.
"We'll be able to communicate quicker with the drivers in the instances that we need to turn them around," Lyons said.
WCS hopes to have the units installed before the end of December, he said.
When schools are closed, the instructional time will be made up according to a makeup plan, Eberle noted. Schools are still required by law to complete at least 185 student days or 1,025 hours.
Because of changes to the state's school calendar law this year, students were not permitted to start until Aug. 19 in Watauga County Schools -- later than usual.
If winter proves stormy, it could mean the calendar stretches longer into the summer than usual for mountain counties. Schools cannot operate past June 30, 2014, schools spokesman Marshall Ashcraft said.
As a result, the school system will continue to consider Saturday school when possible, Eberle said.
"I think you will find that this year we will probably enact the Saturday option sooner than we have in the past," he said.
Fonseca urged parents to make a plan now -- and a backup plan -- for occasions when school is cancelled or delayed.
"I appreciate our parents and community support and understanding, and more than anything, I appreciate their patience as we enter the winter," he said.
Visit http://bit.ly/historicalsnowdays for a listing of days missed in previous years.