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Parents criticize school district over Thursday decision to open schools despite slick roads

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 26, 2017

Schoolchildren peek out of their bus window as motorists, their bus driver and Reliant Transportation employees help secure tire chains and spread gravel on the road so they can safely move off the shoulder of Hillside Drive on Thursday morning. Freezing rain made roads extremely icy during the morning commute. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

UPDATE 6 a.m. Friday:

All Anchorage School District schools will be open on Friday, the district announced.

"Crews driving roads across the muni, Hillside & Eagle River are reporting better conditions this morning," the school district said early Friday in a Twitter message.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Some parents had heated words for the Anchorage School District on Thursday after officials decided early not to close schools despite warmer weather that brought freezing rain and treacherous conditions to steeper parts of town.

The National Weather Service had predicted the warmer weather. Its arrival Thursday left dozens of vehicles in crashes and ditches, including at least five wrecks with minor injuries by noon. Police said a few school buses were involved in some of the calls, although no injuries were reported from them.

The district canceled its after-school activities later Thursday morning, noting in a statement that most bus routes were completed on schedule but that "as the morning progressed, road conditions worsened, particularly in Eagle River and the Hillside areas."

ASD's initial Facebook post announcing a regular school day accumulated about 150 comments Thursday morning, many of them expressing anger over the decision.

"The buses may have chains, but what about everyone else on the road driving with them, that doesn't?" wrote Lonnie O'Leary. "What about the staff, and teachers? Parents who drive their children to school may have the option to stay home today and play it safe, but all those other people still have to try to make it in, in very dangerous conditions."

"With all due respect, you realize telling us to 'be careful' doesn't excuse your responsibility for keeping those kids safe to and from school?" wrote Kerry Wright Reifel. "I just watched a car fishtail in front of kids standing at (a) bus stop."

"ASD needs to utilize 2 hours late (start) and also closing schools in certain areas," wrote Ali Hill. "Eagle River and Hillside had no business going to school today."

"I really encourage ASD to consider dropping the all-or-nothing school cancellation practice," wrote Susie Gaulke. "Eagle River and Girdwood are miles from Anchorage and can have their own weather situations, not to mention the Anchorage Hillside."

Tom Roth, the district's chief operating officer, said Thursday that the decision to remain open began with an early-morning consultation between ASD officials and the weather service.

"We understood from our safety teams and our other departments that in Eagle River, specifically, the roads were iced up," Roth said. "But the reports coming in were that roads (for the rest of Anchorage) were no worse than they were yesterday morning, with the exception of Eagle River."

Roth said that after 3 a.m. test rides in school buses to area schools, meant to provide an "no-kidding, on the ground" sense of road conditions, he recommended to ASD Superintendent Deena Paramo that schools open as usual on Thursday. The district also contacted state road crews to sand the Eagle River roads.

Asked about ASD's options, Roth said that the district generally opens or closes schools district-wide because alternatives like those suggested in Facebook posts aren't workable due to their repercussions across the district. Buses from a closed school to after-school activities at an open facility might not be available, for instance, and teachers at open schools might be forced to drive through weather that closed others.

As an example, Roth mentioned consecutive decisions ASD made in a rapidly changing Nov. 9, 2015, snowstorm to first delay but then cancel school openings for the day.

"The chaos that created, by changing the decision from a delay to a closure, was just problematic," Roth said.

Roth emphasized the importance of parents' role in deciding whether they should keep children in due to the weather. He said the district will generally excuse a student's absence in deference to any reasonable weather-based decision by a parent.

"If your gut tells you, 'I don't want to put my kid on the road today,' absolutely — always, always do what your gut and your heart tells you," Roth said.

Not even Roth's previous time in the military matches the tension of making a call like Thursday's, he said.

"I'm a former Army officer: I've been rocketed, I've been mortared, I've been shot at," Roth said. "Nothing gives me a bigger knot in my stomach than a rainstorm in the winter in Alaska."

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