Weather making life difficult for area schools

Nathan Baker • Jan 28, 2014 at 9:06 PM

As schools canceled classes Tuesday to keep residents off treacherous roadways, road crews worked nearly around the clock to keep the streets clear.

All local districts eventually called off classes, and many had already closed for a second day today as the snow accumulated Tuesday night. The National Weather Service said Johnson City was getting upwards of three inches, with more expected in some areas.

Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Instruction and Communication Debra Bentley said the district has used four snow days so far this year and has only one left.

Students will now attend school Feb. 17, March 31, April 18 and May 27, days originally scheduled as built-in inclement weather days. One more is left in the schedule after Memorial Day, but there’s still more than a month of winter left, Bentley said.

“Once we hit more than five days, (Superintendent Richard) Bales will identify the days we will use to make up for those missed, and the Board of Education will have to approve those changes,” she said. “Historically, we’ve added on attendance days at the end of the school year once we’ve hit our built-in days.”

While most of the local school districts were under two-hour delays Tuesday morning, allowing their leaders extra time to make the decision to close, Johnson City was still under a regular schedule, which meant students attending three schools were already on buses when schools closed.

“The snow started at 6:20 in north Johnson City and the first bus pickup was at 6:25,” Bentley said. “The buses were already rolling, and students at Indian Trail, Liberty Bell and Science Hill High School were on their way to school when the decision was made to close.”

The students already on buses were brought to the schools and allowed to call their parents to make sure a guardian was home.

Bentley said approximately 150 students from Indian Trail Intermediate and Liberty Bell Middle schools were held at Liberty Bell until parents could arrive to ferry them home. The last student was picked up at 9:35.

“We did not anticipate the weather hitting that quickly,” Bentley said. “The timing was not certainly what we would have liked, but every student was supervised at all times, accounted for and returned safely home.”

Washington County Schools were on a two-hour delay, giving Director of Schools Ron Dykes plenty of time to make the closure call before buses hit the road at 8:15 a.m.

Dykes said he watched weather radar for much of the morning and conferred with transportation crews seeking updates on weather conditions.

When the first flakes began to fall and cover roads in Fall Branch and Gray, Dykes put out the alert that classes were canceled.

Adding today’s cancellation, the district has used six of its allotted snow days and has five more left to take.

Dykes said the district should be able to make it through to spring with a little cooperation from Mother Nature.

“When you take a look at the long range, it’s a crystal ball, I just don’t know what’s coming,” he said. “This appears to be a real winter we’re experiencing this year, we’ve had record lows and snow, which contribute to slick roads.

“If we get normal temperatures and if moisture lays off, we should be in good shape. Otherwise, it’s anybody’s guess,” Dykes said.

If Washington County does expend more than its stockpiled snow days, Dykes said he will consider holding school on already-scheduled holidays or tacking days on at year’s end to make them up.

Elizabethton City schools still has one built-in day left out of six.

With the district on a two-hour delay Tuesday, Superintendent Ed Alexander said he was “sweating bullets” when time neared to either send out the fleet of buses or call off school.

“I know it’s frustrating for parents, trying to make sure their children have a secure place for the day, but it scares me to death when I think about all those students heading to school in the morning when the roads might be slick,” he said.

“At the high school, we have students who are driving. I didn’t want them to get in here and then not be able to get home. When it comes down to a question of safety, it’s really cancel school, and worry about when we’re going to make up time later.”

Carter County Schools are in a more dire situation compared to the other districts in terms of using built-in days. The district has already used all 10 of its snow days and will attend school on two days that were scheduled to be professional development days for teachers.

“This January is killing us,” Director of Schools Kevin Ward said Tuesday. “We didn’t miss a day before Christmas, but January has had this uncanny timing to hit us with weather Sunday night, then it turns cold on Monday.”

Students will be in school this year on Presidents Day to make up for primary Election Day, and Ward said any more missed days comes out of spring break.

“It’s been a tough January for everybody, and it’s been especially tough for us with the higher elevations,” he said. “Closing school is one of the hardest decisions in this job, because you want to get kids in there, but you don’t want to risk anyone getting hurt in the process.”

To help keep residents from getting hurt, local road crews were out most of the day Tuesday and late into the night.

Johnson City’s supply of road salt remains in sufficient supply, Public Works Assistant Director Mike Arsenault said Tuesday as the flakes began to accumulate.

“We’re in good shape,” he said. “We started the season with close to 4,000 tons, and so far we’ve used nearly 1,100 tons. We’ve had years that were much worse. This is probably a pretty average year. We still have February to deal with, but by March we’re usually not sending out any trucks.”

Arsenault said the city is using eight large tandem trucks, 10 single-axle trucks and eight pick-up trucks that each have specific routes.

“You’ll see the large trucks on the Bristol Highway and other large, heavily traveled throughways,” Arsenault said. “The smaller trucks have eight different routes. All in all, I’d say at this point the trucks on these routes have handled things pretty well and I don’t anticipate us having to acquire any more salt this year.”

In Elizabethton and Carter County, road crews worked into the night, but that doesn’t mean motorists won’t face icy roads this morning, Elizabethton City Manager Jerome Kitchens said.

“We are working to get the roads as clear as we can, but we can’t get to all of them,” Kitchens said.

The city uses a three-tiered priority in clearing streets, Kitchens said. The top priority is the main highways and arteries. Second priority goes to the main connector streets. Neighborhood streets are the third priority.

Using that system, Kitchens said most city residents shouldn’t have too many blocks to drive before reaching clear streets.

Even under that plan, Kitchens said motorists should be extra cautious this morning.

“Its supposed to get down to 3 degrees. Salt doesn’t work well when it’s that cold,” Kitchens said.

Kitchens said he was also making sure the road crews were clearing off the hill streets as much as possible.

Carter County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins said his men have been working hard to clear the roads, but this storm is blanketing the entire county.

“Its everywhere, its all over the county,” Perkins said. “We will just have to work hard and stay at it.”

The Highway Department had just cleared the last week’s snow Tuesday morning, before the new snow began falling.

Perkins said all of his equipment is in good working condition and his bins have just been filled with 800 tons of chat and salt.

Kitchens said the city is in good shape on salt.

“It’s been really cold this winter, but we haven’t had a lot of snow, so we have plenty of salt,” he said.

That is not the case in the county, where the Highway Department has frequently had to salt the roads in the mountains after each cold front moved through.

“We are going to have to order another load of salt,” Assistant Superintendent Shannon Burchett said.

Press Staff Writer Gary B. Gray and Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson contributed to this article.

Recommended for You