So far, snow days covered in calendar

Published 11:24 am Wednesday, January 17, 2018

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County schools were closed for five consecutive days after Hampton Roads was buried by up to 10 inches of snow last Thursday, Jan. 4.

Isle of Wight Academy was also closed five days as a result of the winter storm, and Surry County schools closed for four days and opened with a two-hour delay on the fifth.

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All schools resumed with normal hours Thursday, Jan. 11, as the area began to thaw. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Whether or not to close a school or a school division due to weather is no small decision. The call impacts the lives and routines of thousands of people, and can draw both ire or relief. So, who makes it, and how exactly does it get made?

For Isle of Wight County schools, much of the decision depends on reports from Transportation Director Lee Livingston, according to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.

After a snowfall, Livingston and transportation staff comb the “hot spots” in the county — the most school-bus traveled roads, and then convene with Thornton, the division’s communication director Lynn Briggs and support services director Marty Callender, according to Thornton.

“We meet as a team,” said Thornton.

On the first couple of days after the big snowfall, it was easier to tell that schools had to be canceled, according to Thornton, and the team met early in the day.

But as the days wore on, the team got together between noon and 2 p.m. to look at images of the roads and brainstorm a course of action, Thornton said.

The division received some backlash from parents after choosing to keep schools closed for a fifth day on Jan. 10.

“We were ready to open as far as our driveways, our parking and our sidewalks on Wednesday (Jan. 10)” said Thornton of the decision. “The roads, those ‘hotspots,’ were not.”

It’s more than just the state of the main roads that sway the division’s decision, according to Thornton. Areas such as Gatling Pointe and Wellington Estates are not usually plowed, and the sidewalks where students wait to be picked up are not often shoveled, Thornton said.

“Even if we open, our students will actually be standing in the road,” which could lead to a dangerous situation, said Thornton.

“So, there is a lot that does go into [the decision],” he added.

Briggs, the voice behind the recorded phone call made to parents announcing school closures, said there’s no fixed deadline as to when the decision to close the schools has to be made.

However, “I don’t really want to call people beyond 8 o’clock at night,” she said.

The division opened just to 12-month employees on Tuesday of last week, and one of its finance employees was hit by a truck, and then another car that slid on the ice as she was driving to work, breaking her femur bone, according to Thornton.

“There are so many factors,” he said. “I’d rather be called an idiot due to not being open then be responsible that we took a chance and anyone got hurt, whether it’s an adult or child.”

Briggs said that due to the size of the county, some areas often have different conditions than others.

“We know it’s tough on parents for their kids to be at home and the arrangement,” said Briggs. “But if we’re going to open school and they’re going to be on our bus, they’re ours, and we’ve got to be 100 percent sure they’re safe.”

The only financial cost to closing the schools was keeping the heating systems on in order to attempt to keep pipes from freezing, according to Thornton.


Like Isle of Wight public schools, Isle of Wight Academy has a team that looks at the road conditions that includes Headmaster Mark Munford, the head maintenance director and director of transportation, according to Munford.

Though the private preparatory school is nowhere close to the staff and student population of the nine county schools, it draws students from Suffolk, Portsmouth and Surry, all the roads of which have to be taken into consideration along with Isle of Wight’s when making a call about whether to remain open.

Munford and the two directors ride the roads themselves, then talk with the rest of the administration team.

The team also monitors the Weather Channel and Isle of Wight County alerts, according to Munford, who also has an emergency weather radio in his office.

Ultimately, Munford makes the decision of whether to close.

Munford said that he lives in Smithfield, while his director of maintenance lives in a more rural area.

“If I know my road is not good, I know the back roads are not,” he said.

Some days, such as when the snow first hit two Thursdays ago, it’s an easy call to cancel classes, said Munford. Other days are more difficult.

On Monday, Jan. 8, the academy announced on Facebook its plans to open back up Wednesday, Jan. 10, pending no further weather surprises, as reported by The Smithfield Times. However, the academy changed the call Tuesday evening, deciding to stay closed after learning that Isle of Wight and Suffolk public schools would remain closed.

“Once they closed, it doesn’t put me in a good position if we put buses on the road,” said Munford.

Like Isle of Wight, the academy doesn’t have a set deadline for making the call. It uses a management system that can send messages and emails out to parents immediately.

“It’s just a matter of typing in what the message needs to say,” Munford said.

It was a particularly tricky time for the closures as well, as last week was slated to be an exams week for students, according to Munford.

The academy used Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as a make-up day, but Munford said it hadn’t decided on whether it needs to have any more additional days to make up for the closures.

“In the end, it’s all about safety and success. We want [students] to be successful, but we want them to be safe,” said Munford. “I’ll take a thousand emails saying we should have gone to school over one that says someone was hurt driving to school.”

Efforts to reach Surry County were unsuccessful.  {/mprestriction}