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Snow’s in the forecast: Are PWC schools open or closed?

It’s 1:30 a.m. on a snowy winter’s night (back when we used to have snowy winter’s nights). You and I are snuggled warmly in our beds. Ed Bishop, Prince William County Public Schools’ director of transportation, along with four members of his management team, are climbing into their four-wheel drive vehicles (provided to them by the school division) to begin driving the roads of their assigned geographical area of the county. Their goal is to determine road conditions and make a recommendation to the superintendent in time for him to make a decision on school closing or delay and have it disseminated to TV and radio stations for broadcast by 5 a.m.
“By 4:00 or 4:15 the others call in and I consolidate the information and pass it along to David Cline (associate superintendent for finance and support services) Cline takes the information to the superintendent and within ten or 15 minutes he calls me back with the decision,” Bishop said.

“Of course, he added. “Sometimes the weather at 1:30 a.m. isn’t so bad, but the forecast for 5 a.m. is terrible. And sometimes the temperatures in Dumfries are above freezing, while the roads are icy in the western part of the county.”

At times, the decision can be made the evening before, based on a combination of prevailing weather and the forecast, Bishop said.

“I’m pleased to see that the superintendent has gone that route recently,” he said, with the decision being made at 10:30 p.m. in time for the 11 p.m. news.

“The superintendent considers multiple weather reports that provide him with a best-guess of what will happen in our county,” he said “We also discuss the situation with other jurisdictions, like Manassas and Manassas Park. The decision,” Bishop said, “is always made with the safety of children and others at the forefront. In my personal observation, if you’re one of those folks who need to see it, you’re at risk. By the time you see it, it’s too late. The decision needs to be made based on what it will look like at certain times. If you make a decision and nobody gets hurt, it’s a good decision.”

Bishop pointed out that cancelling or delaying school has an impact on much more than school buses.

“If you close school, you’ve created a child care dilemma for a lot of parents,” he said. “If you open with slick snowy highways, in addition to the buses you have 10,000 staff members trying to get to work, kids trying to walk to school on snowy sidewalks, and 16-year old new drivers driving the family car to high schools.
“You’ve got to balance the practicality of moving buses, child care, parents missing work, busses stopping and going and the impact on commuter traffic.”

Other things that can affect the decision include the safety of school bus stops and the possibility of downed trees and power lines.

“We observe if there are any power outages that effect schools. When we survey, we’re not just looking at the roads, we’re looking at sidewalks for the 10,000 to 11,000 kids in the county who don’t receive bus transportation.”

In addition to school openings and delays, a decision must also be made when inclement weather impacts school activities or community use of schools after school hours.

“It doesn’t matter when the inclement weather is, even on weekends and holidays,” Bishop said. “From a transportation perspective, most people think of winter,” Bishop said, “but high winds and water can cause rerouting of buses.

“We’ve identified areas that flood easily and consistently. The teams sometimes go out to check for flooding. I’ve been here ten years and we’re not often closed or late for high water. More likely is the changing of bus routes and/or bus stops.”

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