Local emergency officials Thursday night gave members of the Bradley County Board of Education an explanation of what went down when the area was hit with unexpected snow on Jan. 28.
The weather snarled traffic as area residents tried to get from one place to another in their cars that day, and Scotty Hernandez, the school system’s safety and security director, said it presented challenges to those trying to ensure children got home from school.
Hernandez said the emergency contingency plans in place for the schools were followed. He personally headed to the local 911 Center to confer with other emergency officials to decide on instructions for schools.
When schools let out at 11:30 a.m. on that snowy Tuesday, he said they tried to notify the parents as soon as possible. However, he blamed overloaded cellphone networks in the area for some of the calls not getting through to parents.
Buses left schools with students and tried to get them home, but the snow-and-ice-covered roads made it difficult for the drivers to get to some students’ stops.
“We had a lot of the buses do the best that they could ... but some couldn’t make it,” he said.
The children remaining in buses were returned to schools to wait for their families to pick them up.
Meanwhile, traffic in the area saw an increase as many people headed home from work or left wherever they were to pick up their children from school. At 12:23 p.m., the Cleveland/Bradley Emergency Management Agency reported there had been “over 60 wrecks” on local roads.
Eventually, Hernandez said the school system decided to “consolidate” kids to one school — Ocoee Middle — to wait for their rides home. By the time 6:30 p.m. rolled around, all the children had been sent home.
Pointing out some schools in other cities had students staying in schools overnight, Hernandez said officials were prepared to deliver supplies like sleeping cots to the school if they had been needed. He also said school staff were prepared to stay with the students until they all headed home.
“We got it managed,” Hernandez said. “I cannot thank teachers or volunteers or principals enough.”
Still, he said areas such as communication with parents needed to be improved upon in the event of another incident like the Jan. 28 winter storm.
In addition to word of the school closings not making it to parents in as timely a manner as had been hoped, he said he would’ve liked to have seen better communication with bus drivers. Hernandez explained that, because the school system did not have the “luxury” of having its own bus fleet and the improved communication system that might come with it, school officials had to rely on unreliable cellphone signals to communicate with drivers.
He said the school system and local emergency officials were in the process of re-evaluating the emergency contingency plan.
Troy Spence, director of the Cleveland/Bradley EMA, echoed similar sentiments and explained how his organization used the Nixle emergency announcement system to send text messages to the community and updated its pages on the Facebook and Twitter websites.
Spence said “you can’t control Mother Nature,” but local officials can try harder to make sure word of what to do gets out in the event of an emergency. He said officials would likely be encouraging more people to sign up for the free Nixle text messages. Those interested in doing that can sign up at Nixle.com.
Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel said the snow did catch the school system off guard.
“We were not projected to get anything but flurries,” McDaniel said.
Something he said he would like to see the school system do is come up with a list of meeting points that can be utilized in an emergency situation.
Rather than requiring parents to travel all the way to schools when their children cannot be dropped off at their usual bus stops, something like a large church parking lot could serve as a place for parents to meet their children’s buses. However, he said that would require a lot of extra communication.
After board member Nicholas Lillios said some parents had expressed confusion over the bus situation, McDaniel said there also needed to be some clarification on which bus routes will be taken in the event of snow on the roads. At one point during the day, the announcement was made that buses would only be sticking to an “emergency route” that mainly included heavily traveled roads.
Lillios said it had been unclear which roads were included on the route, and one parent said she had trouble navigating the part of the school system’s website that lets parents track the whereabouts of buses.
Vicki Beaty, the school board’s chair, said she liked hearing ideas of how to improve things and believed the board would be interested in hearing about any new policies that might be proposed to address what to do in the event of bad weather.