Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo took more than 10 minutes at Thursday’s school board meeting to explain the district’s decision-making timeline during the snowstorm that happened the last week of January, saying the school system weathered the storm despite problems.
Petruzielo said the decision to dismiss schools early last Tuesday was made “not because of advisories from the weather folks, but from looking out the window and seeing buckets of snow coming down.”
“The timeline for our response to last week’s inclement weather began with advance tracking, starting Sunday, in cooperation with the Cherokee County Emergency Management Agency,” Petruzielo said, adding both the EMA and the school district rely on forecasts by the National Weather Service.
Petruzielo said the decision to hold school on the day the snowstorm hit was made using the most recent information from the National Weather Service, which predicted the morning of the storm it would drop only a 1-inch dusting of snow between 1 and 8 p.m. in Cherokee.
“Our surrounding districts, with the exception of Pickens to the north, all held school on Tuesday,” 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.”
Petruzielo said district staff is in the process of reviewing the inclement weather process, and “implementing necessary adjustments and changes.”
The call to close school early last Tuesday was made hours before Cherokee County was added to the Winter Storm Warning area by the National Weather Service, he said.
Petruzielo said district officials met with those at the Emergency Operations Center on a teleconference call from 9 to 10 a.m., and made the decision to close schools early — despite the fact that the National Weather Service had not yet issued a Winter Storm Warning for the county.
By the time the National Weather Service added Cherokee County to the Winter Storm Warning, Petruzielo said elementary school bus routes were “well under way,” and middle and high school bus routes were beginning.
As soon as school and emergency officials completed the teleconference at 10 a.m. last Tuesday, the decision to dismiss schools early was made, he said.
“Our notification process began as soon as the closure/early dismissal decision was made, with public notification beginning at 10:15 a.m.,” Petruzielo said. “Parents began picking students up from schools. Buses began running their hub routes, followed by elementary routes and then, middle and high schools routes.
Bus transportation was suspended and notifications were sent out at 2:30 p.m., when weather conditions worsened, he said.
When buses stopped running because of the treacherous conditions on icy roads in the county, about 400 students were stranded at schools across the county, along with about 70 staff members, at 15 different schools.
The district announced schools would remain closed Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Petruzielo explained.
“All buses were cleared of students by dark, and cleared of drivers by 8:20 p.m.,” Petruzielo said. “By 1:30 p.m. the next day, all students were reunited with parents and guardians.”
Petruzielo said he wanted to clear up a piece of misinformation that he’d heard in the community.
“The ‘warning’ some citizens and some media representatives cite that Cherokee was added to, at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, was a ‘Winter Weather Advisory,’ which projected for our county up to an inch of snow over a 12-hour period,” Petruzielo said. “This is not the same forecast as the National Weather Service ‘Winter Storm Warning’ for earlier and more significant snow amounts that counties in central and south Atlanta were initially included in. Cherokee County was not added to that area until 1:15 p.m., three hours after our decision to close early already had been made.”
Petruzielo said the district received about 300 emails from “absolutely thankful parents” and a “handful from understandingly frustrated parents.”
“The school district weathered this storm,” Petruzielo said, thanking staff and administration across the district. “We’ve received literally hundreds of messages of gratitude from parents. We’ve also heard from a few upset and frustrated parent. To address concerns, we are reviewing our inclement weather protocols and already have held a senior staff debriefing to begin talking about what we can do better.”
Petruzielo said at this time the district does not anticipate the need to schedule student make-up days.
“We are awaiting guidance from the state as to whether the ‘State of Emergency’ days will be counted toward the four inclement weather days that are allowed under state law, without the need for make-up days or a state waiver,” Petruzielo explained. “If the state requires more seat time for our students, we have a contingency plan prepared that will not require additional days.”
Many School Board members, including Michael Geist, Patsy Jordan, Robert Wofford and Janet Read, thanked district and school staff and administration for their “amazing” work during the storm.
Cherokee County School District teacher and former state House District 22 candidate Meagan Biello also thanked the district for its response to the storm, during the public participation portion of the meeting Thursday.