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How does the superintendent decide when to release early, close or delay schools?

Union County Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis studies weather forecasts, one of the factors in making the decision about school closings. Also pictured, from left, are (seated) Deputy Superintendent Dr. Mike Webb and Assistant Superintendent Shelton Jefferies, and (standing) UCPS Safety and Security Director Jarrod McCraw.

As Superintendent of the Union County Public Schools system, Dr. Mary Ellis is charged with ensuring the safety and security of 40,958 students and 5,427 staff members. Never does this responsibility weigh heavier than when she is confronted with an inclement weather decision.

Knowing that the school system’s bus fleet drives almost 26,000 miles a day and numerous parents and guardians take to the roads to deliver their children to school, the decision on whether schools will open on-time, be delayed, release early, or closed for the day is one that involves many staff members and numerous law enforcement partners. Ultimately, the superintendent makes the decision, but not before she has sought wise counsel from across Union County.

Dr. Ellis approaches inclement weather decisions in the same manner she approaches each of the countless decisions she must make on a daily basis. She seeks input, considers carefully, and then makes a decision based on what is best for the students and staff of the school system.

The inclement weather decisions are a bit unique. Unlike other decisions she may make, the decision to continue, cancel, release early, or delay school comes under great criticism regardless of the decision. Part of the response is due to the size of the county. Union County encompasses approximately 643 square miles of land.

Weather patterns can vary greatly from one side of the county to the other. Snow may be falling in Marvin while the skies remain clear in Marshville. It might be sleeting in New Salem while rain lightly falls in New Town. Ice may be decorating the trees in Porter Ridge while Prospect does without.

In addition to changing weather patterns across the county, roads are very different across Union County. Some residents might be surprised to know that county school buses travel daily on dirt roads, gravel roads, narrow rural roads, and shady roads as well as state roads, highways and interstates.

As forecasters begin calling for wintry weather, the team gets to work preparing to do whatever it takes to provide the superintendent the best information possible with which to make her decision.

Director of School Transportation Adam Johnson takes seriously the need for accurate, first-hand information. On mornings that a decision must be made, he takes to the road at about 3:30 am. At the same time, each of the eight area Transportation Specialists and other transportation staff also begin driving pre-planned routes, crossing the county to personally experience road conditions. From 3:30 am to 4:30 am, they keep in contact, sharing what they are seeing with Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson shared, “We have to consider the many different drivers who will be on the roads as a result of the superintendent’s decision. The system’s 318 school buses transport almost 26,000 students each day, parents drive their children to school and wind-up in heavier traffic near the schools, employees have to drive to work, and we have students driving to school who, in addition to being novice drivers, may not be experienced driving in wintry conditions.” When considering alternatives, Mr. Johnson keeps in mind that it takes almost three hours to transport all bus students from all 53 schools to their homes as the same bus may run an elementary school route and then run a high school or middle school route.

With information about actual conditions from across the county, Mr. Johnson calls Assistant Superintendent Shelton Jefferies who has spent the wee hours of the morning monitoring reports from the National Weather Service. He also reports what he has learned from adjacent county Transportation Managers. “We work as a team with our counterparts in this region of the state,” said Mr. Jefferies.

While the Transportation Department is assessing the roadways, the UCPS Safety Department is canvassing Union County Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Officials. During the last inclement weather event, Safety and Security Director Jarrod McCraw spoke directly with Neal Speer, Union County Fire Marshall and Interim Emergency Management Coordinator. The Emergency Communications Center receives reports on road conditions from zone deputies across the county. Mr. McCraw shares what he learns with Deputy Superintendent Dr. Mike Webb.

Superintendent Ellis receives reports from Mr. Jefferies with a recommendation from the Transportation Department and from Dr. Webb with a recommendation from the Safety Department. Together they discuss making the very best decision possible.

With recommendations in-hand, Dr. Ellis makes a decision. She decides to proceed with school as normal, to delay the start of school, to release school early, or to cancel school. After deciding the plan for students, she must decide what staff will do. They might have a Teacher Workday, a delayed Teacher Workday, or the buildings might be closed to everyone.

Decision made, Dr. Ellis calls Community Relations and Communications Liaison Rob Jackson to relay the decision to all concerned. The Communications Department goes to work, placing the announcement on the UCPS Facebook page, all school Facebook pages, the main UCPS website, and all school websites. All local radio and television stations are contacted with the decision and it is sent out via UCPS and individual school Twitter feeds.

Mr. Jackson sends out the telephone call that so many parents, students, and staff members are waiting for. With the updated system, he also simultaneously sends an email to all parents and staff members with the announcement. The communications loop is closed with a final call to Superintendent Ellis to let her know that the decision to continue, cancel, release early, or delay school has been shared with all concerned.

“Involving so many staff members in making an inclement weather decision is important,” said Dr. Ellis. “They take their information-gathering tasks seriously and are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our students, parents, and staff. They are up very early in the morning, on the roads, assessing the situation across the county. While we do not want to miss school if possible, we will always err on the side of caution.”

Ultimately, parents and staff members have to make an individual decision about whether the conditions are safe enough to venture out. Parents and staff members should not drive in questionable conditions if they feel that they will be risking their child’s or their own safety.

“Inclement weather decisions are rarely popular, often criticized, and take a lot of staff time and energy to make,” said Dr. Ellis, “but, as a mother and grandmother, I know that our children, our staff members, and our parents are worth our every effort to ensure that the decision I make is the right one for their safety and well-being.”

Written by: Rob Jackson, Community Relations and Communications Liaison
Posted: Jan 24, 2013 by Rob Jackson

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