There were 'dozens' of school bus accidents in the Washington D.C. area this morning as a result of school districts making the bad decision to open schools on time despite a thick coating of snow on area roads. As usual, officials are blaming weather forecasters instead of taking responsibility for their actions.
The D.C. metro area is often called the "DMV" because it comprises of the District itself and a couple of counties on either side of D.C. in Maryland and Virginia. On the Virginia side of the equation, we have Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun Counties, all of which are at the peak of a 30-year population explosion thanks to government employees flocking to the area. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people commute into and out of the city, packing area roads—from streets to interstates—to their breaking point.
A light snowfall was forecast to blanket the area this morning, with one to two inches south of the District and accumulations approaching three or more inches to the north. Snowfall amounts wound up on the higher end of the equation, with a widespread two to four inch snowfall from Prince William County and north.
School districts usually make the decision to cancel classes by 4:00 AM or sooner, as that's the time that bus drivers and facility employees begin to arrive for work. When heavy snowstorms are forecast, districts in the D.C. area will often cancel classes the night before, making the situation easy for parents and staff alike. However, during events like this, they wait until the last minute to make the call.
Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William all decided to open schools on time this morning, despite forecasts that show snowfall accumulations beyond what area residents can handle on roadways.
Up to this point, many of our northern readers have likely tuned out and gone down to the comments to voice their snowy superiority and how they used to walk fifteen miles in six feet of snow uphill both ways and how kids today are coddled and officials are wusses and blah blah blah. That's a bunch of crap. The Washington D.C. metro area is the perfect storm when it comes to its inability to handle even light snowfall accumulations. Don't get me wrong, area residents should be able to handle modest snows, but the way the region is set up doesn't allow for a graceful snowfall. The metro area is home to millions of people, almost all of whom leave their homes in the morning and travel a fair distance in order to go to work or school. Traffic is bad as it is—on a clear morning with pristine road conditions, you can expect one accident every couple of miles, and inexplicable backups and jams as far as the eye can see.
If you add a light dusting of snow to those roadways, you still have the same volume of traffic (remember: come hell or high water, employers expect you to arrive on time), but now that hot traffic is sitting on top of a fresh coating of snow. The compacted snow melts under the heat of the cars and roads become ice skating rinks. Now you have hundreds of thousands of people who can't drive on a sunny day suddenly trying to control their cars and SUVs on solid ice. It doesn't work. Not only do you have regular commuters, but you also have thousands of school buses that have to traverse narrow, hilly, untreated residential streets, and school buses move about as gracefully on ice as a blimp in a hurricane.
I grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia. I went to Prince William County Public Schools from kindergarten until I graduated high school. Trust me when I say that school officials have absolutely no idea what the hell they are doing when it comes to making a decision to close or delay schools due to winter weather. There's no rhyme or rhythm to it. It's the same officials making the decisions year after year, but if you give them the same forecast of one to three inches of snow falling during rush hour with temperatures in the 20s, one day they'll call off classes at nine o'clock the night before, and others (like today) they'll try to open on time. There's no consistency, and because officials are afraid of parents freaking out when they call off school and it doesn't snow, they err on the side of danger.
The policy states that parents are allowed to keep their children home from school if they feel that road and sidewalk conditions are unsafe for kids to go to school. It gives the school district cover to open schools when roads are an icy death match like they were this morning, while giving parents the option to veto the district's boneheaded decision if conditions are too unsafe for Jack or Jill to walk to school on icy sidewalks right beside traffic that treats icy roads like the Autobahn.
After two hours and hundreds (if not thousands) of incensed comments, emails, and telephone calls, the county somewhat reversed course and apologized for their decision, instead blaming forecasters for the snafu:
We apologize for the weather-related complications this morning. Multiple PWCS staff were on duty monitoring the weather and roads throughout the night and into the early-morning hours. Based upon this information, we decided to keep schools open. At that point in time, multiple weather forecasts only called for a small accumulation of snow—up to one inch. The national weather forecast changed at 7:01 a.m. to 2–4 inches of snow, and again at 9:03 a.m. bringing the forecast up to 4–6 inches. Unfortunately, this was logistically too late to reverse course on the decision.
In order to provide SACC services and to give the needed time to VDOT and our own PWCS crews to plow roads and parking lots, there won't be an early release. The School Division will close on-time; however, all after school and evening activities are canceled including Night School, GED, and Adult Education classes. SACC will close at 5 p.m.
Thank you for your patience. We sincerely apologize for the difficulties caused by the weather this morning.
Sure, the county got two to three inches of snow when they were only supposed to get one to two, but you're splitting hairs at that point. The county cannot handle snow like folks in New York or Michigan. Officials know this, residents know this, and hell, even people who have never lived there understand that the area falls apart under a few snowflakes. The whole "buck up" attitude shatters into a thousand pieces because every time they decide to open schools on time while it's snowing, buses crash, kids slip and get hurt, and cars pile up on major arteries.
It's not just Prince William County—the Washington Post's weather blog, the Capital Weather Gang, has more on the terrible decision (and buck-passing) made by neighboring Loudoun and Fairfax counties. In each case, officials apologize and say they were shocked—shocked!—that it snowed just a little bit more than the forecast called for.
People who agree with the districts' decision to open today will point out that "kids would have flocked to the malls anyway," which is also crap. These three school districts have a combined enrollment of more than 330,000 students. Justifying a decision that jeopardizes the safety of hundreds of thousands based on the assumed actions of, what, 100 teenagers at most?, is irresponsible and childish.
— Asymptotic Unlimited (@AsympU) January 6, 2015
Students aren't learning today—they're sitting in gymnasiums and cafeterias because so many teachers couldn't safely make it to school. There was no point in sending kids to school today other than the ability to report to the State Board of Education that you had another "educational" day on the books. Officials blew that decision hard, and no amount of blame-shifting will change the fact that they screwed up big time.
We ask teenagers to make foolproof decisions that will map out the future course of their lives, but the officials responsible for their education have a hard time understanding that a 14-ton school bus can't climb up an icy hill. God help us all.