Atlanta weather: not a topic for polite conversation

It used to be only religion and politics that were off the table at dinner parties, but now Atlantans might want to avoid talk of the weather, too.

Last week’s decision to close schools across metro Atlanta provoked both indignation and ardent defense. It was the latest debate about misjudged weather calls since the region was crippled by a dusting of sleet and snow in 2014, and ridiculed mercilessly for it.

Everyone knows by now that school superintendents decided last Sunday to close schools because of a freezing rain forecast that didn’t pan out. They feared a repeat of 2014, when school buses full of students were stranded on ice-slickened streets. Compounding the risk was the traffic expected for the college football championship game downtown. The nation would be watching the University of Georgia play Alabama, the news cameras ready to pan to a weather catastrophe. It’s not the kind of news Atlanta would want while trying to land the most hyped business deal in the nation, Amazon’s second headquarters.

Nonetheless, by Monday morning, the city was filled with quarterbacks, and not just those of the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide. Many defended the closures, saying the risk of injury, even if remote, far outweighed the consequences.

But the call affected more than 800,000 students and their parents, many who had to scramble to find childcare or call in absent from work.

“This. Is. Ridiculous,” griped one on a school district’s Facebook page, complaining of wasted vacation time. Another groused that the “morons” making these decisions were also in charge of educating children. This critic didn’t use the politically-charged term “snowflakes,” despite the opportunity for a weather-related pun, but it surely would have fit the message — that schools are mollycoddling children so much that they’ll grow into adults “who will have to wear Velcro shoes because they cannot tie laces … .”

Those comments were aimed at the Decatur city schools though they could have been fired at any other metro Atlanta district. The vitriol was so acid that it prompted a response from Superintendent David Dude. He explained on Facebook that he couldn’t risk opening schools in a place so ill-prepared for ice. The majority of teachers live outside Decatur, he said, and might have had a treacherous commute.

Many also had their own children to watch because neighboring districts elected to close, Dude explained in a subsequent interview. “If we have a whole bunch of people who call in because their kids aren’t going to school, that’s going to leave us in a bind.” For him, the risk of academic slippage from another lost day of school — schools had already closed once at midday for snow in early December and for three days in September for Tropical Storm Irma — didn’t compare with the potential danger for students and employees.

This wasn’t the first weather-related school closure that, in hindsight, may have been miscued. Last January, Atlanta area superintendents cut school half a day early on a Friday that was forecast to bring up to four inches of afternoon snow. They had reason, Gov. Nathan Deal was calling a state of emergency and then-Mayor Kasim Reed was suggesting an even earlier dismissal to avoid a repeat of 2014.

Ahead of Monday’s expected storm, Deal ordered the early closure of state offices, and Atlanta and Fulton leaders ordered the same for their workers. That paved the way for the superintendents’ decision Sunday evening.

With schools out the next morning, Anna Foote had to babysit for a single mom who couldn't miss work. Foote said the school closures seem more frequent than when her sonnow grown, was a student in Atlanta. She said the closings are a hardship, especially in single-parent households with hourly wage earners.

“I definitely have friends who have younger children and are struggling with this.” Too many missed days of work — compounded by, say, a stretch of illness — can lead to job loss, she said. “It just seems like they’re shutting down way more often than they used to.”

Economy Jackson manages a financial coaching program for parents and said many lose a day of pay when schools close, which can make it hard to cover the rent. The other alternative, said Jackson, an associate director with United Way of Greater Atlanta — a closure called after students are already in school — could be worse for those who work far from home and school, especially if they use public transit.

That’s why her team now coaches parents to consider finding work closer to their child’s school, or at least to have a backup plan.

Amy Baker, a mother who lives near Georgia Tech with her two girls, lost a retail job, in part, because of school closures. She was “written up” when she missed some work days to take care of a relative with terminal cancer and when school was closed during that 2014 storm.

“What choice do you have? Are you a negligent parent and you leave your children alone, or do you take that write up?” She has two friends, both of them mothers, who still work for that company. On Monday, when school closed, one stayed home and got written up, the other left her 18-month-old and 2-year-old in the care of her son, a high school senior.

It’s unclear whether officials are over-reacting to weather or simply reacting to more of it. There was a jump in the frequency of worrisome forecasts in the middle of this decade, with seven school days affected in 2014 and six the next year. The winter weather warnings or advisories by the National Weather Service were far less frequent over the preceding decade when there was typically one at most per year on a school day, except in 2010 when there were four and 2011 when there were three. The past two years were slow by comparison, with one school day affected in 2016 and two last year.

Angela Hale doesn’t question the decision to shutter the schools on Monday. The Druid Hills resident senses more frequent closures in recent years and said officials are probably more cautious due to the “national embarrassment” of the 2014 storm. Like just about everyone in Atlanta, Hale has a horror story, in her case about a friend who spent 11 hours driving home to Peachtree City, just 30 miles south of Atlanta.

Hale wonders if officials were fearing a repeat during the College Football Playoff National Championship. Consider how badly the city’s image suffered from “Snowpocalypse,” as it was dubbed.

"Students slept in school gyms. Workers slept in the aisles at CVS. Commuters wouldn't have missed much if they fell asleep in their cars," quipped a Washington Post photo essay on Jan. 29, 2014, the day after that unforgettable storm.

Jon Stewart, the since retired comedian, gutted the city's brand the next night. "The ice age zombie doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta," he reported in a skit dubbed "South Parked." How much snow must it take to bring that about, he mused. Three feet? Ten feet? He then cut to a newscast reporting that two inches had blanketed the city.

Cue the laughter, as he smiled slyly and held up his right hand, extending two fingers.

If that were the fear, Hale wishes officials were more open about it.

“I think it’s probably wise to err on the side of caution,” Hale said of closing the schools, “but I don’t think we need to be dishonest about it.”

It was a suspicion shared widely on social media. And some school officials did mention the football game in their announcements.

Fulton County Schools cited both the forecast for icy roads and the anticipated “traffic challenges” presented by football fans and the motorcade for President Donald Trump, who came to watch the game. Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, in a blog post about the weather closure, alluded to the game and to the potential traffic congestion, warning parents to exercise caution on the roads.

Dude, the Decatur superintendent, was working in Iowa in 2014, but heard all about that year’s storm when he moved here the next year. He said it remains in the thoughts of the superintendents he talks to when discussing the forecasts, and likely factored into last week’s decision to close schools across the metro area. “There is a lot of lingering fear about what happened with that storm,” he said. “It was eye-opening to a lot of people just how vulnerable we were.”

The fickle weather has created a no-win situation for superintendents. Last month, they didn’t react to a looming snow storm until the middle of the day when it hit. With echoes of 2014, cars poured onto the roads in the afternoon. Hale, the mom from Druid Hills, said it took her two hours to drive the four miles from her office near downtown Atlanta to pick up her son.

“We can’t quite find that sweet spot,” she said of the closure decisions.

Luckily, the heavy snowfall in December didn’t affect roads too badly south of Cobb County, so the region wasn’t frozen in place.

Grant Rivera, the superintendent of schools in Marietta, said that on the night before, he was on a tense conference call with eight to 10 other metro Atlanta superintendents, and they all had crews out checking the roads.

“We were asking very pointed questions of the National Weather Service, and their answer was ‘I don’t know,’” he said. The temperatures were above freezing that night, and the snow hadn’t arrived as expected. So Marietta and most other school districts decided to go ahead with school.

Rivera couldn’t forget what many perceived as an over-reaction the previous winter — that afternoon when schools had decided ahead of time to close early and then the snow didn’t fall and it was a “balmy day.”

Making a decision with an unclear forecast is as much an art as a science, and it’s freighted with history, he said.

“Do I think about Snowpocalypse? Every time. Do I think about the balmy day? Every time.”

Winter weather warnings or advisories on school days in Atlanta and north Fulton County.

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