School Day or Snow Day? Driving in the Dark Helps Make the Call

On a late January morning, Carol Hamilton was out driving at 3:30 a.m. to see just how bad the roads were around Lowell.

Pretty bad, she quickly found.

After driving for nearly two hours, the Lowell Area Schools transportation director called Superintendent Greg Pratt to recommend the schools stay closed for the fourth day in a row. Pratt agreed, even though it meant Lowell exceeded its state-allowed maximum of six snow days.

“We were all trying very hard to go,” Hamilton said later. But the more she drove through the pre-dawn blackness, the more drifts she saw covering ice-packed rural roads. She envisioned buses delayed or stuck while students shivered at bus stopsin minus-20-degree wind chills.

“What broke the camel’s back was the drifting and the inability to keep the buses on schedule or even go down some roads,” Hamilton said. “It’s going to slow down the buses significantly enough that the other factor comes into play — the wind chill.”

Such are the calculations a school district transportation director must make to determine whether it’s safe to send students to school. In this snowbound West Michigan winter, schools and parents rely more than ever on people like Hamilton and their superintendents to make the right call.

Pratt, who frequently drives the roads as well, called her advice “invaluable.”  “She is the main factor in my decision-making,” Pratt said. “I feel very fortunate to have someone of Carol’s expertise out here.”

 Difficult Decision Either Way

Whether or not to open school is a tough decision superintendents have had to make more than usual this brutal winter. Though they commonly make their own pre-dawn drives, superintendents look to their transportation directors for expert advice. 

“I don’t know what it’s like to drive a bus with 60 students,” Pratt said.  “You really have to depend on these folks.”

Carol Hamilton drives this Chevrolet Suburban for up to 2 hours on snowy morningsHamilton drives as many miles as it takes – she drove 78 one recent morning — to help Pratt make an informed decision. If he says yes, 30 Lowell buses will hit the road to cover 1,200 miles and deliver 2,200 students safely to school.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Hamilton, in her 24th year with the transportation department, fifth as director. “The weight ends up on him, but he relies on me to give him a good judgment.”

Officials decide based on several factors: weather forecasts, road conditions, visibility, accessibility to bus stops and houses. Especially important lately has been the wind-chill factor – the combined effect of temperature and wind. Kent ISD superintendents recently agreed to use minus-20 as a benchmark consideration for closing schools — up from minus-30 in prior years — after surveying other ISDs statewide. No matter which way they decide, superintendents often anger parents who either feel it’s too inclement to send their children to school or not bad enough to keep them home. “These school closings are among the hardest decisions superintendents have to make,” said Ron Koehler, an assistant superintendent with the Kent ISD. “You’re always going to upset somebody.”

Looking for Drifts and Singing Under the Stars

Students’ safety is foremost on Carol Hamilton’s mind as she traverses Lowell’s winding, wooded roads in her district-owned Chevy Suburban.  Hamilton knows well the district’s 140 square miles. She grew up here on a dairy farm, taking the bus to school and Sunday rides with her family. Both her daughters are Lowell graduates, and many of her drivers have had children in the schools.

“They have skin in the game, and I like that in a driver,” Hamilton said, while driving one morning as the sun rose over barren corn fields.

It was students’ first day back after four consecutive snow days. About a half-dozen roads were still closed to buses, requiring drivers to take different routes and students to go to different stops. Hamilton had called in the changes to the transportation office after deciding with Pratt to open school.

She had also conferred with transportation directors from neighboring districts, as she often does. Besides helping her gather information, she said, such consultations provide “security in numbers.”

“We’ve had some days where we’re all alone” in holding school, she said. “No matter how good or poorly things go that day, all eyes are on you.”

Hamilton had risen at about 2:15 a.m., grabbing a Detroit Tigers mug of water before heading out at 3:30. She turned on Christian radio station WCSG-FM, sometimes singing along as she drove 66 miles of “just me and the road and the bunnies and the deer.” It was a beautiful morning, the stars shining in cold splendor.

She never feels afraid or alone, she said: “I always have a feeling that the Lord is with me. No matter what happens, I could rely on him.”

She found some roads half-covered with drifts, others impassable but most clear. She filed through the questions: Could a bus stop and start here? Could other drivers see it clearly? How safe is it for students who drive?

“The decision-making is the hardest part, especially on days when it could go either way,” she said, while occasionally talking on her walkie-talkie with her staff and drivers. “It’s all a matter of risk. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe day.”

She experienced that first-hand the following day, when she got stuck between snow drifts on Four Mile Road. A district grounds worker retrieved her, leaving the Suburban to be pulled out later.

But this day was safe enough, she decided. Pratt agreed when they talked shortly before 5 a.m., plenty of time for buses to start rolling around 6 a.m. Now it was time to see what the next 24 hours would bring. Driving back to the office, she said, “It’s a whole new thing tomorrow.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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