Why weren’t Fayette schools closed Tuesday? Sup’t. Barrow: ‘It was my decision’

Fayette County School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow, Jr. File photo from mid-2013.

“If we had known things were going to hit as hard and fast, if I had had that crystal ball, I would have obviously made a different decision. Knowing what I knew, based on the information I had, I felt like we were going to be OK.” — Dr. Joseph Barrow
Fayette County school students went to school Tuesday morning, Jan. 28, just like every other school day. After a mid-day snowfall covered roads in icy patches, many of them didn’t make it back home until well after dark. Parents were both anxious and furious.

Why officials made the decision to keep schools open in the face of a winter storm warning is the subject on the minds of many parents and taxpayers this week. On Friday, Superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow took full responsibility for the call to close schools Tuesday afternoon and explained his reasoning.

“Like everyone else we were in tune with the reports as they were coming out. We were very much in touch with all our agencies, emergency management, the county, the cities and the National Weather Service. (The county) has an emergency operations center where we come together and have briefings. As late as Monday afternoon, and part of the reason whey we had school at all on Tuesday, all of our data on what was happening for Fayette, we felt like we were going to be okay in getting in a full day of school,” Barrow said.

“We had a 9 a.m. meeting on Tuesday to get an update. We felt like we were going to get flurries in the afternoon or maybe even as early as noon but it would be dry snow. The projections for the amount were relatively low. So we thought by the time school ended we would pretty much be within a window where we felt safe. Based on the 9 a.m. meeting we decided to release the schools about 30 minutes early. We felt like that would not be a big issue for the schools and not a big issue for parents and providers (by giving them) a little bit of lead time. We did not make the decision in isolation. We listened to all the information sources we had at our disposal. We’re all talking together and everybody was pretty much on the same page. Nobody voiced any reservations about having school.”

Fayette County EMA Director Pete Nelms agreed, saying that the consensus at the 9 a.m. meeting was that the school system would be able to get the full school day in and that the situation would be continuously monitored.

“If we couldn’t have gotten the (school) day in based on the information we had, we would have recommended calling it,” Nelms said, adding that there was constant communication throughout the day between his office and the school system.

Commenting further on the 9 a.m. meeting, Barrow said, “(The storm forecast) really hadn’t shifted much from Monday afternoon to the Tuesday morning report. Those reports are pretty sophisticated, but I also know those reports are not a 100 percent exact science. If you close schools or have an early release you’re going to make some people mad, and if you don’t close schools you’re going to make some people mad. I understand this and I appreciate the significance and the seriousness of the ramifications of our decisions. And we wrestle with those. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it’s not the fault of the board of education, it’s not the fault of the central office staff or the principals. It’s my decision and I assume full responsibility for that. I don’t try to sugar-coat it. It was my decision, and for those who want to issue criticism I’m willing to accept it. I own it completely.”

Barrow said he was in a community meeting with groups such as the NAACP and the district attorney when phones began ringing just before noon. It was during that time that snow began to fall and temperatures continued to drop.

“When it became apparent to us that it was going to hit us quicker and harder, we started modifying our plan. One of the first ones that we communicated with were all the high school principals to allow our student drivers to be released at 1:30 p.m. We were thinking we’d still be okay, but to let those inexperienced drivers leave because you want to use caution there,” Barrow said, adding that schools were told to let students leave 30 minutes early.

With snow and temperatures continuing to fall, the call was made to move up the release time to 1:30 p.m. for all schools. Principals were also notified that if they had employees who lived out of county that, while going through the process of early dismissal, they could let those employees go too, said Barrow.

“In the interim some parents (with children at elementary, middle and high schools) decided to go ahead and check out their students, which was fine,” said Barrow. “The traffic began to pick up at that point. We had done what we hoped to do, getting most of the day in. We were past that lunch time, our kids had been fed. That’s a concern for us. Some of our (students), if they don’t get fed at school they don’t eat. So there are a myriad of issues we look at when we’re talking about closing schools.”

Pay from the state requires approximately a half day of school, depending on a school’s start time. Asked if the decision was made to get in a half day of school so the school system could receive pay for the day, Barrow said, “Absolutely not. We value and treasure instructional time. That’s critically important to us. We don’t want to waste it and we don’t like messing with it and we were trying to get as much instructional time in as we could. If we had known things were going to hit as hard and fast, if I had had that crystal ball I would have obviously made a different decision. Knowing what I knew based on the information I had, I felt like we were going to be okay. Everybody is entitled to their opinion on things.”

“We had our last bus report in by 6:55 p.m.,” Barrow said of the final students being dropped off at home. “Part of the issue was due to road conditions. (Another part of the issue) was that parents coming from Atlanta couldn’t get to us. So we were holding some of the kids in our after school programs.”

Another issue that arose dealt with the north section of Peachtree Parkway being closed due to icing.

“It did throw a wrench in the gears. It affected buses from Crabapple, Kedron and Peachtree City elementary schools, and that impacts the buses at McIntosh and Booth,” said Barrow. “That created a problem for us. We were able to continue to deliver the kids that we could and thankfully they were able to open (Peachtree Parkway) back up. We dodged a big bullet there.”

Pertaining to the early release on Tuesday, Barrow said, “A huge tip of the hat goes to all our transportation people. They really stepped up. We had some folks running routes they don’t normally run because of the (weather conditions) we had.”

Barrow noting the efforts of the bus drivers on Tuesday said, “All the drivers were on alert. We put out the call and they responded. I can’t say anything but great things about our drivers, the transportation department and the people in central office.”

Barrow said that while this was his first winter storm with icy roads, he had previously dealt with the decision to close schools for issues such as flooding and the largest wildfire in the state that lasted a month.

“The circumstances (with a winter storm) are a little different, but the process (of determining to close schools) is very similar because there are a number of variables (such as weather reports) that have to be considered,” Barrow said.

Fayette schools ran 178 buses on Tuesday, driving a total of 21,000 miles. There was one accident involving a school bus when a car skidded into it after students had been dropped off at home. The driver of the vehicle that slid into the bus was charged with DUI alcohol, said Deputy Superintendent San Sweat.

“We’re going to learn from this experience, and we’re going to sharpen the saw and get better at it. When we get it right, we look pretty smart. And when we get it wrong, we look pretty silly,” Barrow said. “But there’s a variable out there called Mother Nature and we don’t control her. We can sometimes predict what we think will happen. And we’ll learn from the experience.”

Bus drivers on Friday drove their routes with empty buses to plot where “danger zones” existed or had existed on Tuesday so that those areas can be avoided during future winter storms by routing buses along different roadways. There were still icy patches on some of the roadways, according to transportation director Roxane Owen. Drivers who called in on the systemwide radio network reporting those icy areas were told to plot them but to avoid them, Owen said.

justacitizen
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just my thoughts

Dr Joe was embarrassed when they cancelled schools a few weeks before because it was cold..really!! So he would not cancel when he had a winter storm WARNING because he did not want to chance being embarrassed again.
He should be terminated. A leader makes a decision and does not apologize for it he or she stands behind it and explains the reason for the decision. Do we really want him making decisions on our kids education. I think not.

rmoc
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No win situation

How many folks complained when they cancelled school for Winter Storm Warnings. Dr Barrow was stuck between a rock and a hard place. We get so many false warnings I don't blame him.

Spyglass
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One way to cover their selves..

Like I commented below, when the National Weather Service issues a Winter Storm WARNING...key word..Warning...it should be a no brainer. These are fairly rare for the area...this was issued around 3:30 AM Tuesday, the day of the trouble.

I don't have a kid in school anymore, but it sure would have helped with the traffic in the area if the School Board had heeded this warning.

G35 Dude
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Spy

Friends on the north side of Atlanta started calling me around 11am that Tuesday saying that the storm had hit and it hit quick and hard. This was the time that the edict should have been issued to send the kids home. I don't buy this "it was a surprise" stuff.

wheeljc
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At Least Dr. Barrow Accepted Responsibility!

Unlike many of our elected officials and senior bureaucrats, at least Dr. Barrow accepted responsibility!

wheeljc
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At Least Dr. Barrow Accepted Responsibility!

Unlike many of our elected officials and senior bureaucrats, at least Dr. Barrow accepted responsibility!

Richard Ford
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School Closings

While it is now apparent that FC Schools should have closed earlier in the day for weather. I have to laugh a little at some of the comments regarding the decisions and placing full blame on the school system. The last time I checked, (ME, MYSELF, and I) am responsible for my children and their safety. As a parent, it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to asses the safety of all things for your child. So while fingers are pointing at the school system saying things like, You had computers so you should have predicted the severity of the weather better, that same finger is pointing back you.
So parents, while you are upset at the schools, remember this it is YOU that sent them out that day and YOU that left them there past the point of no return. The true moral of the story here is that when you place you faith and trust in someone else, you get what THEY feel is best, not what YOU feel is best. Lesson learned.

brewster
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One good parent

I know I had to leave work and was steaming all the way to the school house to pick up my child because her Mom called me and said that they our children were not going to wait and ride the bus. I am feeling pretty good about that today.

Spyglass
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While I agree with personal responsibility..

I was raised that IF school was open, I should be there. You are right in that parents have a responsibility of their own, they also are walking a thin line on teaching their kids lessons in showing up for duty.

I saw parents lined up at Booth well before the official time that school was released...

That said, you would be surprised how many people really do not keep up the weather like some of us do.

Spyglass
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Winter Storm Warning=Schools Closed...period..

It is not that complicated...Warning came out at 3:30 or so Tuesday Morning for Fayette, Even Clayton County figured this one out.

For those from the great white North who would poo poo this, we simply do not nor do we need the equipment to deal with snow and ice to make all roads passable.

borntorun
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Bone Headed Decision

Supt. Barrow, I appreciate you taking full responsibility for the bone headed decision to open schools last Tuesday. But then again what choice did you have? It was your call after all. May I make a suggestion or two? I assume you have a computer. There is this wonderful website called The Weather Channel. Perhaps you've heard of it. They also have a tv channel. On that website you will see a link called Map. If you would have clicked on that link early last Tuesday morning you would have seen this big ol' pink and purple blob already in GA and barreling straight towards us. Better yet, if you would have stuck your head out the door at around 10:00 you would have noticed snow and sleet already falling. And while it would have been a major pain in the you know what to dismiss school then, it would be in everyone's best interest. No need to bring together your esteemed panel to ponder what to do. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 but hopefully next time the lesson you take away from this debacle is....better safe than sorry when it comes to the safety and well being of our children.

PTC Observer
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PhD's Don't

compensate for common sense and good judgment. Next time just listen to the weather forecast, in this case a "storm warning", look out the window and make a decision.

While no children were injured and nearly everyone made it home, the county clearly dodged a bullet on this event.

Remember when making your judgment next time, when it comes to our children's safety, the old adage "Better safe than sorry" is applicable here.

G35 Dude
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PTCO-I agree

Places north of here were hit hard and fast, hours before it happened here. That should have been a word to the wise to get those kids out of dodge!!!!!

BTW, Mr Barrows now that you see the value of those bus drivers is there any chance that you'll restore their pay back to the level it was 5 years ago? Before we go building new buildings?

Earl E Bird
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Bus Drivers
Quote:

BTW, Mr Barrows now that you see the value of those bus drivers is there any chance that you'll restore their pay back to the level it was 5 years ago? Before we go building new buildings?

This is a good question. Wonder if we'll get an answer?

Davids mom
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Common Sense/Child Safety

There were administrators who were able to act independently of Fayette County, and closed their school on Tuesday. Weather prediction is not an exact science. Grateful for the expertise of FC bus drivers. I hope all staff made it home safely.

Quote:

BTW, Mr Barrows now that you see the value of those bus drivers is there any chance that you'll restore their pay back to the level it was 5 years ago? Before we go building new buildings?

There are many citizens who would like an answer to this question. Thank you FC bus drivers!

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