McLean Winterfest 2016 2

School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) rode in the 2017 McLean Winterfest Parade. (Photo by Deb Kolt)

Fairfax County Public Schools managed to avoid canceling classes when winter began late last year, but 2018 has gotten off to a rocky start.

County schools were closed Jan. 4 and 5 following a light snow and bitterly cold wind chills, which caused mechanical problems for buses and endangered students’ health, school officials said. The school system, which since Dec. 15 had held classes only on Jan. 2 and 3, also canceled classes Jan. 8 because forecasters expected freezing rain to begin descending early that afternoon.

“Due to the high potential for the onset of inclement weather starting as early as midday Monday, even with an early closure elementary-school bus routes would still be on the road during the forecast period of hazardous road conditions,” according to a notice listed on the system’s Web site.  

“The problem with freezing rain now is that the ground is cold and there’s been no melt at all,” said School Board Chairman Jane Strauss (Dranesville District). “As soon as rain falls, you have black ice. You have a dangerous situation right away.”

School leaders followed their standard protocol when deciding not to hold classes Jan. 8, Strauss said. School officials constantly are in contact with weather forecasters and for the past year, at parents’ request, have been sending out alerts the evening beforehand if it appears inclement weather may force class cancellations or a change in the school schedule, she said.

Bus drivers begin arriving for their shifts between 3:30 and 4 a.m. and system leaders usually decide between 5 and 5:30 a.m. whether to cancel classes, delay the opening of schools or end the school day early, Strauss said.

The decision is made by a group of top leaders, not just Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

“It doesn’t rest with one person,” Strauss said Jan. 8. “The decision today was made at 5:02 a.m. and the message was sent out at 5:18.”

Such decisions always inconvenience parents, students and staff, but safety remains the top consideration, she said.

Blisteringly low wind chills in the single digits or lower led to school-bus delays the previous week, posing potential frostbite problems for students huddled at bus stops, Strauss said.

While parents of elementary-school students frequently stick with their children until buses pick them up and monitor the school system’s Web site for delays on their routes, parents of high-schoolers often continue on to work after dropping off those older students at the bus stops, the School Board chairman said.

Those high-school students are less likely to monitor the system’s Web site for bus delays and therefore remain exposed to the weather longer, Strauss said.

About 2 percent of school buses were behind schedule on their routes during the first week of school after Christmas break, she said. Part of the problem stemmed from engines that would not start.

Fairfax County Public Schools cannot afford the millions of dollars it would take to house all of its buses in heated indoor facilities or purchase heating devices that keep the vehicles’ diesel engines in fine working fettle, Strauss said.

“Localities with harsh winters, such as Boston or Buffalo, have those kind of heaters,” she said. “Maybe it’s coming in the future. It has not been cost-effective in Virginia to make those decisions to spend that kind of capital money. In the end, it’s more cost-effective simply to do the best we can.”

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