Snow gives metro Atlanta school leaders an agonizing decision

Traffic builds on the I-285 East expressway as a wintery mixture of sleet continues to fall in Metro Atlanta, Friday, December 8, 2017. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Traffic builds on the I-285 East expressway as a wintery mixture of sleet continues to fall in Metro Atlanta, Friday, December 8, 2017. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Students at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in south DeKalb County were supposed to be released from school at 1:30 Friday, prompted by the steadily falling mix of snow and rain seen across metro Atlanta.

Buses were still pulling up a half hour after the scheduled early dismissal.

DeKalb and other metro districts changed plans in the middle of the school day as snow began sticking to grass and surfaces around metro Atlanta. Weather intel — and road conditions — had initially told a different story, several school district leaders said about their abrupt decisions to change course.

In a region still known for its poor response to a 2014 ice storm that left thousands stranded overnight in cars and on buses, decision-makers say weather warnings leave them in the unenviable position of deciding how seriously a threat should be taken.

"Do I think about Snowpocalypse? Every time," Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera said. "Do I think about the balmy day? Every time."

“I think people have PTSD about Snowmageddon. They are terrified and rightfully so,” Atlanta superintendent Meria Carstarphen said, referring to the 2014 storm. “I recognize that, but at the same time not every weather condition is going to create that outcome.”

No major accidents involving school buses were reported after students were released. Authorities did say Friday morning that a bus crash on Interstate 20 near Moreland Avenue involving a Rockdale County bus headed to a field trip was weather-related.

Rivera said he didn’t get a clear answer on a conference call with the National Weather Service early Friday morning, which included leaders from most of the other metro Atlanta school districts.

“We were asking very pointed questions, and their answer was ‘I don’t know,’ ” he recalled.

Temperatures were above freezing, and the snow hadn’t arrived as expected. So they decided to go on with the school day.

With the exception of Clayton County Schools, every metro Atlanta school district announced early dismissals between 11 a.m and 2:30 p.m., which contributed to traffic backups across the region.

Cobb County parent Josh Davis said he saw cars that slid off the road while heading to pick up his son from Westside Elementary School on Polk Street in Marietta. He said students should not have been in school with a winter storm warning in effect.

“Too often school closings seem to be guided by media coverage and hype,” he said, “as opposed to information being put out by the National Weather Service.”

When a threat of incoming bad weather arises, state offices have been quick to shut down in recent years, sometimes with the forecasts not really panning out.

“It’s a delicate situation,” WSB-TV Meteorologist Katie Walls said. “Personally, I believe that seeing is believing.”

Walls said a winter weather advisory was issued Thursday afternoon for metro Atlanta. It was upgraded to a winter weather warning — for the west region around 3 a.m., then the rest a few hour later — with “periods of snow expected.”

“Regardless though,” she said, “we started talking about the potential for travel impacts from this system on Wednesday.”

DeKalb Schools Superintendent Steve Green said through a spokesman that the district decided to open Friday and continue monitoring weather conditions. A conference call was scheduled to update the situation at 11 a.m., but Green made the decision to release students and staff early after watching the snow and rain escalate.

Atlanta Public Schools dismissed its first school at 1:15 p.m., with most elementary schools scheduled to follow at 1:30 p.m., high schools at 2:30 p.m. and middle schools at 3:05 p.m.

Even with the early dismissal, the district expected students would make it home around the regular time because of the traffic and weather conditions. The district reported that most students had made it home before 5 p.m.

Gwinnett County Public Schools also dismissed students an hour early Friday, meaning high school students were released at 1 p.m. or shortly after. Spokeswoman Sloan Roach said she had not received alerts from the district’s transportation department about any problems, but said traffic is typically more congested as people leave work early because of the weather and schools close.

“I have heard that there’s heavier traffic, which is probably to be expected,” she said, at about 1:40 p.m. “We are on the roads and getting students home.”