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To close or not to close? It's a tough call, superintendents say

School superintendents hear about it every big storm, or non-storm.

Why didn't you cancel school? Why didn't you close school earlier? How could you send children home on dangerous roads? Why did you close school when it didn't snow?

Hundreds of students in at least three school districts were stranded for hours in buses and at schools after school ended Thursday because of the lake-effect storm that dumped 26 inches in West Seneca and 28 inches in Blasdell. Some didn't get home until 12 hours after school ended.

The last few children left a West Seneca school at about 3 a.m. Friday, driven home by police.

[Stranded children finally make it home early Friday]

Some parents and others turned to social media to complain.

"How come the superintendents are not taken to task for a complete failure to be proactive?" one man said on Facebook.

"With Buffalo's weather history of Lake Effect Snow and gridlock, WHY were these elementary buses allowed to leave the parking lot?"asked a woman, who said her grandson was on a bus for more than seven hours.

Deciding to close school is among superintendents' most important responsibilities because the safety of students is at risk. It also may be one of the actions that causes the most angst for parents who are juggling modern family life.

The first priority is the safety of the students, and most of the time, they will be safest in school, experts say. Once school is in session, chances are students are going to remain in school, particularly with both parents working in many families.

"We all are very, very reluctant to dismiss the elementary kids significantly early than their scheduled departure time," Hamburg Central Superintendent Michael Cornell said. "They’re safe in the school. They're safe, they're warm, they’re supervised, they’re cared for. It creates an unsafe situation if we inadvertently drop off a student where there’s no one home to supervise."

About 500 students were stuck at two West Seneca elementary schools after the storm hit mid-afternoon in the town.

"Had I known in the morning we were going to get 26 inches of snow, 4 inches an hour, of course we wouldn’t have opened," West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford said.

He said the weather prediction was for 3 to 6 inches later in the day.

[How the wall of snow became a wall of cars]

Part of the problem was the timing. The heaviest snow hit at mid-day in parts of Hamburg, and a little later in the day in other parts of Hamburg and West Seneca. Crawford said when some of the buses began to move out, the gridlock had not taken hold.

"If we hadn't had the gridlock, we wouldn't have had the issues we had," Crawford said. "I’m glad that in the end everyone was safe and sound."

It wasn't just school buses that were stuck. It took hours for many parents to get home.

"A lot of parents weren't going to get home for another six to seven hours anyway," he said. "Imagine that, you’ve got kids at home and you’re sitting in your car in gridlock."

Crawford recalled the "storm of the century" was predicted about four years ago, and schools and colleges across the area closed. But the storm never materialized with the expected ferocity.

"It's that unpredictability," he said.

"No one anticipated this thing was going to go on as long as it did," Frontier Central Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said of Thursday's storm. "Everybody’s stuck in traffic. I think everybody anticipated it moving in the next five minutes."

Frontier kept Big Tree Elementary open for children who could not get home, and about 100 students got shelter there for varying lengths of time. Some Frontier students were stuck on a bus for up to seven hours, he said.  Many of them were special needs students, and many of them had aides as well as drivers on the bus. The adults remained calm, he said.

"If you frame the experience for them in the right way, they are very calm about it. They could get very upset if you frame it wrong," he said.

He said there was some improvising on bathroom issues, but that children stranded on buses were able relieve themselves if necessary.

After the November 2014 storm, the district changed its procedures to be prepared to shelter students in place for 24 hours or longer, Apthorpe said.

There's another reason schools don't close early. In most cases, districts have several bus runs and don't have enough buses to transport every child home at once. If he closed school at noon, students would not get home by 1 p.m., he said. On regular school days, the first buses leave the first school at 2 p.m. and the last buses leave the last school about 4 p.m. If the first bus run is late getting back, it pushes back the time for the next run.

So what can be done?

Hamburg's Superintendent Cornell was meeting with other superintendents at Erie 1 BOCES Thursday morning, and getting reports from Hamburg that it looked like a "snow globe" there. There was little snow at the BOCES office in West Seneca at that time.

"We realized this could get nasty," he said.

The district did not let students attend afternoon BOCES programs outside the district. It also retrieved its students who are in alternative education programs outside the district by noon and canceled the afternoon prekindergarten program. Those actions allowed the transportation department to focus resources later in the day on getting students home instead of getting returning students from outside the district.

"We dismissed secondary schools 15 minutes early, and got buses to elementary schools at 3," Cornell said. "We were able to get them home pretty quickly."

And when snow starts falling at 3 or 4 inches or more an hour, every minute counts. The five Hamburg students who were stranded Thursday were coming from outside the district, he said.

"No matter what we do, if we cancel it, some people call us cupcakes, and if we don’t cancel we're told we don’t care about kids," Cornell said.

"You do the best you can. Once you make a decision, you own it, for good or bad," said Crawford.

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