Stranded students led to frustration, kindness, outrage, explanations

The cold and grueling traffic jam for the history books took a special toll on thousands of parents who spent a lonely and agonizing night apart from their children stranded in school buses and classrooms.

The snowstorm certainly galvanized teachers, bus drivers, police officers and neighbors to work together and ensure children were sheltered and accounted for, but it also caught officials flat-footed, with a response to the gathering snowstorm that ignited outrage.

“I’ve been a worried mess all night,” said Tanisha Ector, whose 6-year-old son had to bed down without her at his school, the Deerwood Academy in southwest Atlanta. “They should be ashamed they even allowed the kids to go to school.”

More than 10,000 students hadn’t arrived home as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, the number shrinking to 2,000 by noon Wednesday and to near zero soon after, according to estimates released by Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. At Centennial High School in north Fulton County, about two dozen special needs students spent the night. Some needed medications left at home, so teachers walked to a nearby Kroger for emergency prescriptions and to a Pizza Hut for a to-go order.

“I’d love to go home,” said teacher Traci Coleman Wednesday morning. “But this is where I need to be right now. This is like my second family.”

Students around metro Atlanta had to hunker down in schools after their buses or parents got caught in the commuter chaos. Some children left school, striking out on foot, trying to walk home or to their parents’ cars stuck in traffic.

Kim Sherman, a mother of three girls in north Fulton County, called her school system’s handling of the weather a “debacle.”

The late decision to close the schools — she got an email at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday — contributed to the gridlock she said, sending parents en masse into the streets to retrieve their kids. Alerted by a text message from one of her daughters, Sherman had gotten a head start and was home before the mayhem. But then she ventured out again in her SUV when one of her daughter’s friends texted from Autrey Mill Middle School, saying she was still stranded because her school bus hadn’t come.

“That was a nightmare,” said Sherman, who encountered thick traffic and abandoned vehicles. She picked up her daughter’s friend, and three other girls walking along the road. She faulted school officials for failing to react sooner to the bad weather reports.

Quentin Hutchins, a veteran bus driver for Atlanta Public Schools, said officials compounded the problem by sending drivers home after the morning drop-off instead of keeping them on hand for early dismissal. He said the roads were a mess by the time he left home to get his bus.

“This could have been avoided,” Hutchins said.

Superintendents defended their decisions not to cancel school Monday evening, despite the snowy forecasts. They said the meteorologists were uncertain about the timing and depth of the snow, and that it came sooner than expected Tuesday.

Meteorologists defended their work, too.

Al Roker of NBC said on national TV that the governor and Atlanta mayor “took a gamble” on the weather, despite clear warnings from his brethren in the prediction business. “I mean, we were talking about this Monday, that this was going to happen,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the the National Weather Service said her agency’s forecasts were “spot on.” The statement from Susan Buchanan said Atlanta forecasters saw the “storm forming two days in advance, and they appropriately issued a series of outlooks, watches and warnings, and began briefing local and state partners on Sunday.”

And Marshall Shepherd, a professor at the University of Georgia and the president of the American Meteorological Society, wrote in a blog post that it was wrong to blame his profession.

“I began to hear things like ‘this was not expected in Atlanta’ or ‘they said this was going to all be south of Atlanta’ or ‘there were no watches or warnings until snow started falling’ or ‘weather is just unpredictable,’” he wrote. “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong!”

Later, Shepherd softened his delivery somewhat, saying said he did not want to come off as negative and that he understood decision-makers had difficult calls to make, given the blowback that might have followed a canceled day of school if no snow fell. He also said officials might have misunderstood the forecasts and that meteorologists should consider creating a clearer way to rank storm potential. “This points out an opportunity to really re-think how we warn,” he said.

By Wednesday, though, school officials had plumbed the depth of the outrage, and they, too, were conceding a point.

“I can only imagine how difficult this has been for our students, teachers, and families,” Fulton County Superintendent Robert Avossa said, apologizing for the “heartache and frustration” of the “awful” situation, in his district, which was among those with large numbers of stranded students. “In hindsight,” he added, “we agree that all metro schools should have been closed for the day.”

In Cobb County, where some 320 students were trapped in schools, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, acknowledged the anguish for parents, while praising his district’s performance. Students had to be rescued from a handful of buses that slid off the roads, but there were no reported injuries or misplaced students, he said.

“This certainly has been scary for people. My apologies to every one,” Hinojosa said, adding: “We can’t control or predict the weather. All we can do is control how we respond.” He said though, that the next time he gets such “bad” weather forecasts, he “will likely need to make some decisions earlier. You always want to be safe rather than sorry.”

Superintendents across Georgia may soon be rehashing the event, with an eye toward a better outcome next time, state Superintendent John Barge said Wednesday. They are in a difficult position, on the one hand charged with safeguarding students and on the other with ensuring as much instructional time as possible.

Most Georgia districts are already offering less than the state-mandated 180 school days, largely because of budget cuts, which might have fed reluctance to keep students home Tuesday, for a second day in January after an uncommonly cold freeze led to a day of cancellations across metro Atlanta.

“If there was a hesitancy to close, that may have been because they already have a shortened calendar,” Barge said.

Meghan Ritchie Wohlfarth, a Cobb parent, said there was plenty of blame to go around, since employers across metro Atlanta had workers reporting to work, only to release them in a “mass exodus” around noon, flooding the streets.

“I think a lot of people could have stayed home and worked from home, but no one realized it was going to come as hard and fast as it did and quickly turn to ice,” she said. School officials “knew snow was coming, but I don’t think they knew how quickly it would come and how people would respond to it. … I don’t think they can be totally blamed for this.”

Even Ector, who was unable to communicate with her son until Wednesday, acknowledged that her fear was perhaps unfounded. Afterall, her boy was fed and given a cot at Deerwood Academy and even got to watch movies.

“I’m sure he had a blast staying at school with friends,” she said. “Kids never really mind. It’s the parents that are wrecked.”

Staff writers Brad Schrade, Wayne Washington and Carrie Teegardin contributed to this article.

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