People work to push a stuck Atlanta school bus and a car on an icy stretch of University Avenue in Southwest Atlanta on Tuesday evening January 28, 2014. The bus was eventually moved off the road and left for the night.
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

State troopers headed to schools to rescue stranded teachers and students

State troopers are continuing efforts to reach hundrests of students trapped in schools since early closings Tuesday.

Slippery, snowy roads left students stranded on buses and in schools and prevented parents from reaching them late Tuesday.

The rescue efforts followed Gov. Nathan Deal’s declaration of state of emergency Tuesday for all 159 counties. He addressed the government’s efforts to help unclog roadways and rescue stranded motorists late Tuesday night, and said troopers being sent to schools where students were stranded.

On Tuesday afternoon, some schools and their employees began prepping for students to sleep overnight because no one could reach them on the slick roads.

“We definitely might be pulling an all-nighter here,” said Thomas Algarin, spokesman for Marietta City Schools on Tuesday.

“We have been trying to transport students all afternoon, into evening and up to about 30 minutes ago, Cobb school spokesman Jay Dillon said in an e-mail send to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at 9:36 p.m. Tuesday. “At this point, the roads have deteriorated to the point that there is no use in further attempting to deliver students home. All buses have either returned their remaining students to school, or will be there shortly. That’s only a relative handful of buses. We dismissed two hours early and were able to safely transport the vast majority of elementary students, and most high school students.

Dillon said the difficulties came in taking middle school students home during the last bus run. “As a result, many students were returned to schools where they were picked up by parents. Parents are still picking up students. In cases where the parents are unable to get to the schools, the students will remain at the schools until they are able to be picked up. Fortunately, they will be safe and warm, have facilities, and, if they stay overnight, will be fed dinner and breakfast. [It’s] not an ideal situation, but at least they are supervised, safe and accounted for.”

Kim Sherman, the mother of three North Fulton students, called the school system’s handling of the weather a “debacle.”

Sherman said she was disappointed in the school system because officials had been discussing the weather since the night before. And when the decision to close was made, her only notice was at the last minute, by an e=mail delivered at 1:45 p.m., as school was closing. She got no text messages or phone calls, and only saw the email after she got home the first time, with her girls. She later ventured into traffic again to rescue a few other students who were stranded in school or walking from it.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Sherman said. “I have lost complete faith in my Fulton County school board.”

At North Atlanta High School, students were still waiting for buses at nearly 10 p.m., according to Atlanta schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green. According to the school district’s Twitter feed, food was on the way. Frustrated parents said school officials had been promising to feed students for hours.

Roads were in such bad shape that Marietta City Schools and Cherokee and Bartow counties north of Kennesaw suspended school bus service, asking students to remain at school until parents could pick them up.

“They seriously miscalculated,” said Marcus Reed, who drove 90 minutes over five miles of side roads to fetch his eighth-grade son Payton and sixth-grade daughter Marlyn from Sandtown Middle School in Fulton County. “I know every school day is precious, but they shouldn’t have had school today.”

At Keheley Elementary School in Cobb County, Principal Liz Jackson stayed behind to care for two kindergartners whose parents had been trying for hours to reach them.

Jen Hancock, a mother of two in North Fulton, said she was “very annoyed” by the school district’s last-minute decision to close early.

She said she was irritated that school officials cancelled school in early January because of unusually cold temperatures, “but we don’t cancel school when it’s snowing, sleeting and freezing.”

Dunwoody resident Kate Wolfe, who works in Tucker, said she left work early to pick her 3-year-old son up from daycare, but bumper-to-bumper traffic prevented her from arriving for nearly three hours.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I used to live in L.A., and this traffic today ranks up there with the worst I saw there.”

Some school buses couldn’t make it up hills in Cherokee County, and others were still on the roads even after the school system suspended bus service, said Debbie Rabjohn, the parent of a sophomore at River Ridge High School.

“It’s way worse than we thought it would be. They said we might get a dusting, and we probably have three inches of snow here,” she said after picking up her daughter from school.

Most metro Atlanta school systems released students early Tuesday afternoon when it became clear that snow would be significant, but some were faster than others in making their decisions.

Public school systems in the city of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County and Cherokee County sent children home early, but Gwinnett County didn’t.

Gwinnett County didn’t have widespread problems with getting children home, with only one elementary school in the Norcross area still holding students until parents could get them as of 7 p.m., said spokeswoman Sloan Roach. All buses made their runs successfully, she said.

That wasn’t the case in Cobb County.

There were hundreds of children stranded in the independent Marietta school system. There were students at all seven of the city’s elementary schools, and at the middle and high schools, spokesman Thomas Algarin said. Those schools were not dismissed early, but the two magnet schools were. Those children either made it home by bus or were re-routed to the district bus depot where they may have to spend the night.

Cafeteria workers, teachers and other staff are on hand at the schools, so the students will be fed and cared for by people they know. “If it turns out that we’ve got to house the kids, they’ll be warm and they’ll be safe,” Algarin said. “We don’t have cots or beds, but certainly we have those gym mats that are used for P.E.,” he said.

DeKalb County schools only had a “handful” of kids awaiting their parents Tuesday evening, and there were no plans to shelter anyone overnight, said spokesman Quinn Hudson. “Nobody is stranded,” he said.

School chiefs around metro Atlanta conferred hours before the start of school Tuesday, but forecasters were still uncertain then about how far north the snow would fall, said Michael Thurmond, the DeKalb County School District superintendent.

“The weather forecast was very iffy,” he said, noting that if they’d canceled school and it hadn’t snowed, people would have been angry, too. “There will always be second guessing and disappointment with the decision.”

Schools in Fulton County initially planned to dismiss students at their normal time but reversed course when the snow hit harder and sooner than expected, said spokeswoman Susan Hale. Fulton’s announcement was made public around the same time that students were released at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday.

The forecast wasn’t reliable enough Monday night or Tuesday morning to justify canceling school at that time, said Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa.

“It wasn’t enough. It was talking about snow flurries beginning at noon and slowly building up over time, with real accumulation beginning and 4 or 5. Our thought was, ‘let’s look at that as it comes in,’ but unfortunately it came in faster,” he said.

Most Atlanta-area school systems planned to leave schools closed on Wednesday.

Cancellations for Wednesday have been announced for schools in Atlanta, Gwinnett County, DeKalb County, Fulton County, Cobb County, Clayton County, Cherokee County, Douglas County, Fayette County, Henry County, Forsyth County, Barrow County, Paulding County, city of Marietta and city of Decatur.

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