Mark Nilson walked six miles from his home to spend the night with his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, a kindergartner. at E. Rivers Elementary in Atlanta. More than 100 schoolchildren and 35 staff members including some parents and bus drivers spent the night at the school. Two movies with popcorn was served after a pizza dinner from the cafeteria. Some parents were able to come during the night and retrieve their children. Some even walked.
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

Students finally get home after sleeping at school; more closures announced

Hundreds of Atlanta-area students who were stranded overnight in their schools were finally sent home Wednesday afternoon, a day after snowy and icy roads prevented them from leaving.

While school buses came to the rescue as roads began to clear, school systems announced they would remain closed Thursday following the ordeal. Schools in Atlanta, Gwinnett County, Cobb County, DeKalb County, Fulton County, Cherokee County, Douglas County, Fayette County, Forsyth County, Paulding County, Decatur and Marietta won’t open until Friday.

More than 10,000 students hadn’t arrived home as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, but that number shrank to about 2,000 by around noon on Wednesday, according to estimates released by Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. By Wednesday afternoon, few, if any, students were still waiting for rides.

Some parents like Mark Nilson couldn’t wait to get their children home and spent the night with them at school.

He walked about three hours Tuesday night to join his daughter, a kindergartner, at E. Rivers Elementary and then caught a ride home Wednesday morning.

“It was unfortunate when the snow started to come down, the whole city decided to go home,” Nilson said. “Rush hour came at noon, and so many people were on the roads with school buses trying to get where they needed to go.”

Other students got home after long car or bus rides Tuesday night, but some students escaped their schools only to get stuck halfway home on slick and traffic-clogged roads.

A group of Riverwood High School students slept on their school bus on I-285 Tuesday before they were taken to a nearby Kroger, said Anneqah Ferguson, the mother of an 11th grader.

“We’re upset because the school didn’t reach out to us to know what was going on,” said Ferguson. “We can’t get to them. We’re iced in. We don’t really know what the next steps are.”

Police in DeKalb County rescued seven similarly stranded students, who spent at least seven hours on a school bus.

“We went out to 285 and got them,” said DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond. County Police Chief Cedric Alexander himself also helped extract six of the dozen students who had to stay at Peachtree Charter Middle School. Parents were supposed to get the other six but didn’t come until after midnight.

Elsewhere, students awoke Wednesday morning surrounded by books and gym mats as they were greeted by breakfasts of bananas and cereal. They were stuck waiting for rides home after school officials canceled school in the middle of the day Tuesday, when snow was accumulating and traffic was grinding to a standstill.

By 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, the last remaining city of Atlanta students had been dropped off from school buses, said Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green. The students who waited the longest were at North Atlanta High School, E. Rivers Elementary School and Continental Colony Elementary School.

Marietta City Schools had about 1,000 students stranded at its elementary, middle and high schools at one point on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, that number had shrunk to 669 as parents trudged to schools to pick up their children. In Cherokee County, 400 students slept overnight at 15 different schools.

A group of 54 students found refuge at a a Fulton County fire station in Fairburn, which took them in from a school bus from Langston Hughes High School.

At Centennial High School in Roswell, about 33 students — most of them with special needs — slept in classrooms or on wrestling mats in the school’s media center after only five out of 50 buses arrived and students relied on their parents to get home.

Fifteen teachers and staff members that work in the special needs program stayed with the children, some of whom are in wheelchairs or require special medication.

For some of the children, it was their first night away from home, and teachers kept worried parents informed through cell phone calls and text photos. One group of teachers walked through the snow to a nearby Kroger to get emergency prescriptions filled, including seizure medication.

Few of them got any sleep, and they’re not sure when or if they’d be able to get home.

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

The National Guard helped with the rescue and is working to reach stranded buses still out there on roads, said Assistant Principal Bobby Macris.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Macris said.

At North Atlanta High School, boys were directed to the gym and girls went to the media center when their parents couldn’t reach them on hilly, slippery roads.

Freshman Nicholas Wright said students felt trapped, bored, hungry and thirsty as they waited for someone to bring them home. He said the school had enough sandwiches to feed the girls but not the boys, and a fight broke out between students at one point.

“We were all pent up, and there was really negative energy,” said Wright, who caught a ride home with a neighbor at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday. “I would have much rather been at home than spending one more second there.”

Parent Elisa Gambino, who picked up her freshman daughter and two other students after 10 p.m., said she traveled in an SUV on slick side roads before finally arriving at the school.

“I didn’t even get a call saying kids were staying the night. The communication was horrendous,” she said. “I don’t understand the rationale of when they see a storm coming, they didn’t just keep the kids at home. I just don’t understand why they sent the kids to school. It was so dangerous out there.”

Marietta City spokesman Thomas Algarin said culinary arts students at Marietta High School “turned lemons into lemonade,” using the cafeteria to cook for their fellow students.

The school’s chef, Ginger Pratt, and 13 of her students cooked all afternoon to prepare a meal of barbecue, chicken tender sliders, stroganoff, pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, nachos and apple crisps.

Algarin said the district is still assessing the roads. Parents can pick up their children — if they can make it over frozen and traffic-snarled roads.

AJC Reporters Rose French, Wayne Washington and Brad Schrade contributed to this article.