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Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Snowstorm left parents worried as their children got stranded

Posted on 06 February 2018 by Calvin

Ten buses were in minor accidents; 20 buses got stuck—some students ended up being ferried home in police vehicles

By JANE MCCLURE
St. Paul’s biggest snowstorm in several years has St. Paul Public Schools families fuming and school and city officials apologizing. Many students were affected by the Jan. 22 snowstorm, waiting at schools for late buses or stuck in buses on snow-clogged streets. More than 300 pre-K through eighth-grade students didn’t make their trip home until 10pm to midnight. The last children got home after midnight, with some students ferried in St. Paul Police Department vehicles.

Between 50 to 75 special needs students, whom the district transports, were also impacted. The last of those students were home by 10pm. In some cases, bus drivers stopped to get food and water to bring onto the buses.

At Galtier Elementary (1317 Charles Ave.), the last students didn’t leave until about 8:20pm. Teachers Laura Priebe and Darya Fidelman stayed late with the students, who watched a movie until the bus arrived. Principal Sharon Hendrix stayed and answered the phone.
Neighborhood Galtier parent Jacqueline Robinson pulled a sled of treats over for the students. Clayton and Kristin Howatt also assisted and helped push motor vehicles out of the snow.

“It was pretty awesome,” Clayton Howatt said of the neighbors’ efforts to help the stranded children.

But while parents and school faculty and staff stepped up to help in many cases, many parents were left waiting and wondering where their children were. Some parents said that had they known buses would be an hour or more late, they would have headed to schools to pick up their children. But doing so could have meant getting stuck on the way to schools, and then having no one at home when children arrived.

Frantic and angry parents, unable to reach schools and trying to use an inaccurate bus schedule app, have bombarded school officials with calls and emails. Many are praising bus drivers, and school faculty and staff who stayed into the night at schools with their children. They lay blame on district administrators and the School Board and are demanding changes in communication and in snow day policies.

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard and Mayor Melvin Carter III apologized at a Jan. 23 press conference. Gothard said that when the decision had to be made at 5am Monday whether to close schools, the forecast called for six to eight inches of snow in St. Paul. Instead, more than a foot of snow fell as the storm tracked north. The heaviest snow was falling when schools were being dismissed. By midnight Jan. 22, the snowfall total at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was 12.4 inches.

Gothard said that knowing what he knows now, he would have “definitely” made a different decision as to whether to close schools. “It breaks my heart that this happened.”

By 10am January 22, St. Paul announced that schools would close early. That wasn’t time for school buses, which typically pick up children at 2, 3 and 4pm. While the first buses were on time, about 400 of the 3 and 4pm buses were running late. Ten buses were in accidents, and another 20 got stuck.

Thomas Berg, transportation director for St. Paul Public Schools, said Jan. 22 was the most challenging day of his career. “We were somewhat overwhelmed by the situation.”

As problems worsened during the evening, school district officials reached out to the city for help, with snowplows and police deployed where needed. Carter himself visited Farnsworth Elementary in Payne-Phalen neighborhood and Wellstone Elementary in the North End. At Farnsworth, the mayor helped shovel out a bus.

Michelle Lyn Peterson’s two children were more than two hours’ late getting home from Capitol Hill Elementary. Their bus ride is usually 45 minutes. She lives in Como neighborhood, and the children’s father lives on the East Side. While she typically doesn’t approve of her son having his cell phone at school, Peterson said she was glad he could call her, and help other students contact their parents.

Peterson said she’s proud of the way Capitol Hill students responded, with older students looking out for younger students on the bus. “While it was a really unfortunate event for many, we sometimes forget that our kids are amazing, caring and resilient individuals.”

But if the snow storm was a time of stress and struggle, it was also one where many people looked for each other, something Carter cited at the press conference.

For most parents, the issue is communication, which is being looked at closely. Berg said that while the buses have GPS systems, those aren’t always accurate. Bus drivers are supposed to call their dispatchers, who then call the school personnel to update the bus app. That wasn’t possible in the weather conditions as driver struggled through heavy snow.

The school district works with nine bus companies.