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Schools post alerts on social media

Thursday, January 23, 2014

By HARRISON HAMLET - Special to the Bulletin

When the weather is threatening, some area students don’t even have to get out of bed to find out if school has been canceled.

They can grab their cellphones off their nightstands, check their Twitter accounts and learn whether they need to get up and going — or if they can go back to sleep.

That is because Henry County and Martinsville school divisions have added social media to traditional means of notifying students and staff when school is canceled or late.

Twitter, according to Martinsville School Superintendent Pam Heath, not only reaches a broad audience, but allows her to correct misinformation quickly. Heath’s Twitter’s account, @SuptPamHeath, has 522 followers, who “retweet” to others to spread the word about closings.

“Our Twitter notifications started last year and really took off,” she said. “It allows students, parents and teachers to get the latest information. They take a lot of comfort in those updates.”

Henry County schools also post closings and delays on Twitter, according to Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton. Its Twitter account of @hcps_va has 602 followers.

When students get the message about the day’s classes, it is the culmination of considerable study and discussion, the superintendents say.

Superintendents in Henry County, Martinsville and Patrick County put the final stamp on the decision to close their schools earlier this week. All of the superintendents stressed safety when making their decisions, but other factors can come into play, as well.

Heath said she errs on the side of caution when deciding whether students should be expected in the classroom during bad weather, such as this winter’s snow and cold.

“We’re really studying the weather,” Heath said. “We’re out on the roads and considering how it would impact families and working parents. The safest proceedings always take precedent. Every single decision is made with a lot of thought and consideration of all factors, with safety coming first.”

The city schools rely on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, which officials combine with their general knowledge of local weather, she said.

All three school systems use road spotters, who often are out around 4 a.m. judging road conditions. The three superintendents also talk among themselves about their decisions.

The unpredictability of weather often leaves the superintendents wondering if they made the right call, particularly with Virginia law requiring 180 days — or 990 hours — of in-class instruction each year, according to Heath.

Each school system allows for a different number of snow days in its schedule, ranging from three to 12, and they have different plans to make up extra snow days by shortening vacations or other means.

Cotton and Dean Gilbert, acting superintendent of Patrick County Schools, use similar methods to make their decisions and to notify students.

“It’s very challenging and not an exact science,” Cotton said. “We do the best we can with the information we have.”

Both county systems use automated messenger systems to notify students of delays and cancellations. The systems call every household and send text messages and emails with information about delays and closings.

“For the most part, (the messenger system) has worked very well for us — not just for delays or school closings, but each school has its own account” which they can use for other announcements, Gilbert said.

Gilbert acknowledged the unique challenges created by Patrick County’s terrain.

“We do have a mountainous area several hundred feet above the rest of the county,” he said, “and sometimes we aren’t able to go because of that.”

The superintendents stressed the difficulty of making these decisions.

“Our decisions are not always easy to explain,” Cotton said. “For example, when we closed recently due to cold temperatures, it was not due to dangerous road conditions, but to problems with diesel buses. We were concerned with students waiting at a bus stop as much as we were concerned for those driving the buses or our teenage drivers transporting themselves to school.”

“We get a lot of questions,” Heath said, “particularly when our decision is different from (Henry) County. They have more mileage and outlying areas, so (Henry County) is always more likely to have bad spots.”

All of the school systems try to make the decision as early as possible, but the superintendents emphasized that changing forecasts and weather conditions can push their decisions to the morning of the delay or closing.

According to Gilbert, a little local knowledge goes a long way.

“I rely on our transportation director a whole lot,” he said. “She’s lived her whole life here and has a lot of experience on where to look (for problem roads). After so many years, you get used to where you have constant problems and where you don’t.”

Heath concluded that students may be thrilled with the extra time off now, “but they may not feel the same way if days get cut from spring break” due to an unplanned, excessive number of snow days.


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