School Superintendent Frank Petruzielo addressed the decision to dismiss classes two hours early and the frustrations of some parents with the situation that left more than 400 students stranded at schools and 70 students forced to stay through the night.
“As you might imagine, parents have been sharing their thoughts with us. Some are angry, and we certainly understand. Some have shared thanks for heroism showed by our staff, and those are appreciated more than they know,” Petruzielo said.
“I know there are many parents in our community today who are frustrated; it’s unlikely that anything I will say will ease this for them. But know this: I and every one of our employees care more about the safety of your children than how many hours they spend in a classroom,” classroom,” the school superintendent said.
The Cherokee County School District, along with Cherokee Charter Academy, planned to keep schools closed Friday as crews continued to clean up the mess left from Tuesday’s snow.
Petruzielo said the district survived the emergency because of the patience and support of parents, employees, education partners and volunteers.
“On behalf of every one of our more than 39,000 students, please accept my thanks, as I have never been as grateful as when we reunited the last of our sheltered students with her parents on Wednesday afternoon,” Petruzielo said.
The school superintendent said he wanted to dispel the myth there was financial incentive for school systems to have classes Tuesday. State funding is based on two attendance count days during the school year, and Tuesday was not one of those days, he said.
Petruzielo said the decision was based on weather information the school system had Tuesday.
“We based our decision to hold classes on Tuesday and the subsequent decision to close early using the most recent weather information available; Cherokee County was not included in the ‘winter storm warning’ area until after the decision to close early already had been made,” he said. “Had we, or our neighboring school systems, known the speed or severity of this storm further in advance, we would never have held school on Tuesday.”
While many parents appear to be pleased with the district’s reaction to the sudden winter storm, others said they experienced difficulty with the school system.
Some parents said they tried to warn the district before it was too late.
Lynn Hotzclaw, a mother of two children at R.M. Moore Elementary School and one at Teasley Middle School, said she called the school district after she realized roads were becoming icy around 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“At 10 minutes after 10 on Tuesday it started snowing, so I left home and went to R.M. Moore and got my two kids. At 10:30, I called the school district office and told them they needed to load the buses, that the roads were getting bad and I had seen cars having trouble,” Hotzclaw said Thursday.
Hotzclaw said her other child got stuck at Teasley, but has since been able to leave the school.
“We have not been able to get him home yet,” Hotzclaw said. However, the parent did praise the personnel at Teasley for the job they did in caring for the students stranded there.
“Teasley was awesome, the teachers, bus drivers and other staff there were great,” she said.
School district spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said the decision to close schools early was made at 10 a.m., immediately after officials knew conditions were deteriorating.
“The decision was made using our inclement weather protocols, which are posted on our website for public review. Our staff participated in a National Weather Service phone conference from 9 to 10 a.m. with Cherokee County emergency management officials, and based on the forecast for an inch of snow between 1 and 8 p.m., the decision was made immediately following that meeting to announce early dismissal,” Jacoby explained Thursday. “Had we, or any other school system in metro Atlanta, known the speed and severity of the storm, we would never have held school on Tuesday.”
Jacoby said the district has not received any reports of injuries, and said the school district plans to review its protocols and make improvements where possible.
“We’ll be reviewing our protocols and how they were executed to determine where there are areas for improvement,” she said.
Another parent of children at R.M. Moore Elementary School, Melissa Sims, said she tried to warn the district at about 9:30 a.m., after it had been snowing for about 15 minutes.
Sims said she lives near the Lake Arrowhead community in Waleska, and by the time she picked up her kids from school the roads were too icy to make it home.
“We ended up having about 94 cars piled up here,” she said Thursday. “We ended up having to walk two miles home.”
Petruzielo said part of the reason schools dismissed two hours early and not immediately after the call to close them was made is because transportation for 39,000 children takes time.
“School bus routes cannot all be run at the same time. CCSD alone transports 29,000 bus riders home each day, and that process takes more than three hours to complete beginning with hub routes, followed by elementary and then middle and high schools,” he said. “Knowing that our community’s children had to spent the night away from home breaks every educator’s heart including my own, and I am so grateful for the job our staff did to care for these children. Our schools that sheltered students overnight kept them safe, warm, fed and entertained.”
Despite complaints from some, Jacoby said the response from parents has been vastly positive, with about one negative for every 100 positive comments.