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Did schools overreact in closing today? Or, did they want to avoid 2014 horror?

Newspapers expect their employees to show up in bad weather. When I was eight months pregnant with my first child in 1988, I slid down our steep driveway on a plastic lid and walked a mile with my husband to the Decatur MARTA station. (Let me add that I was young and stupid and wised up with my subsequent pregnancies.)

As a parent, I used to hate weather-related closings in the era before telecommuting became an option. I would scramble to ask friends or sitters to watch my kids. Sometimes, co-workers would bring their older kids to work and set them in a corner with a book.

So, I sympathize with the parents complaining today that the metro-wide school closings were unnecessary. Most businesses – with the exception of government offices, many of which are closing early – are up and running today and expect their workers to be as well. Hourly workers often have the least ability to take a sudden personal day to remain home with their kids when schools close.

I am not sure how we avoid school closings that then prove unnecessary. Four years ago, we saw the terrible consequences when districts don’t shut down early enough.

In January of 2014, two inches of snow and ice that began midday immobilized metro Atlanta and turned routine commutes into 20-hour ordeals. Thousands of schoolchildren and drivers were stuck in buses on paralyzed interstates. Teachers stayed overnight with their students who could not get home. Eventually, the governor activated the National Guard.

I don’t think any of us will forget the accounts of children trapped in buses or the photos of school gyms full of students sleeping on mats. As the AJC reported at the time:

The cold and grueling traffic jam for the history books took a special toll on thousands of parents who spent a lonely and agonizing night Tuesday apart from their children stranded in school buses and classrooms.

The snowstorm certainly galvanized teachers, bus drivers, police officers and neighbors to work together and ensure children were sheltered and accounted for, but it also caught officials flat-footed, with a response to the gathering snowstorm that ignited outrage.

More than 10,000 students hadn't arrived home as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, the number shrinking to 2,000 by noon Wednesday and to near zero soon after, according to estimates released by Gov. Nathan Deal's office.

At Centennial High School in north Fulton County, about two dozen special needs students spent the night. Some needed medications left at home, so teachers walked to a nearby Kroger for emergency prescriptions and to a Pizza Hut for a to-go order.

Students around metro Atlanta had to hunker down in schools after their buses or parents got caught in the commuter chaos. Some children left school, striking out on foot, trying to walk home or to their parents' cars stuck in traffic.

Superintendents defended their decisions not to cancel school Monday evening, despite the snowy forecasts. They said the meteorologists were uncertain about the timing and depth of the snow, and that it came sooner than expected Tuesday.

The postmortem of Snowmageddon 2014 generally found the state failed to prepare for the threat of dangerous weather and then responded too slowly to the resulting gridlock when schools and businesses closed all at once. But there was another factor at play. Earlier in January, schools shut down in response to cold temperatures, leading to criticisms that the better response should have been a heavy coat, not a day off from school. Perhaps, districts did not want to risk the wrath of parents again by closing for weather that didn't show up.

Readers on my AJC Get Schooled Facebook page generally praised the decision to close today, although  many in the Atlanta area -- it's another story around Ringgold -- noted this morning their streets were clear of ice. Some examples:

•As usual, clear. Damned if you do.....I don’t envy these administrators!

Thank you for making the safety of our children and staff a priority!

 I believe they should wait until 5 a.m. to cancel. Things can change quickly overnight.

We got some rain in Lithonia around 10:30, but it was 36 degrees by that time. What a waste of a snow day.

Do they not have two-hour delays down here? Do they not have two-hour delays down here? I grew up in Pennsylvania, and when bad weather was expected like this we just went in late. Why is it always right to cancellations? If they are just worried about the morning roads, why not just delay the start of school?

Some believe today's closings were not about weather but the University of Georgia-University of Alabama national football game that will bring a presidential motorcade and thousands of fans to downtown Atlanta. While those factors would impact Atlanta and Fulton schools, they don't explain why districts far from downtown would need to close. I don't see the game as a factor in the decisions.

Your thoughts? Is there a better way? What about delayed openings? Emory delayed its start until noon. Agnes Scott College delayed until 11:30 a.m. UGA delayed until 10 a.m.





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.