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Snow Storm Leaves APS Students Stranded at School

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Snow Storm Leaves APS Students Stranded at School

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ICE-OLATED: An APS school bus makes its way through the busy Atlanta streets as the snow begins to stick. Hundreds of elementary and high school students were stuck at their schools overnight, since the icy roads made it impossible for buses to reach them. Photo by Dave Winter

BY J.D. CAPELOUTO AND MARY CLAIRE MORRIS

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night, Debbie Whitlock got a phone call from her 9-year-old son, a fourth-grader at E. Rivers Elementary School, as he was en route home on a school bus.

“It was a strange cell phone number and I could hear kids making noise and I could hear someone crying and I said, ‘Hello, hello, who is this?’” Whitlock said.  “He said, ‘Momma, I don’t know where we are but I’m scared and I think we’re somewhere near home.’”

Whitlock’s son, who was also on the bus with his third grade sister, was one of several hundred students who were stranded on school buses as they struggled to get kids home in Tuesday’s snow and ice storm. While he was lucky enough to make it home, many students were left with no way to get home due to the storm and heavy traffic. More than 400 students and over 50 staff members reportedly spent the night at North Atlanta High School and approximately 150 students spent the night at E. Rivers Elementary School.

“My kids finally got home at nine o’clock,” Whitlock said. “There are still 150 kids at the school. Only three of the 10 buses even made it to the elementary school. They told the other buses not to bother so the buses have given up. The kids are spending the night on the gym floor, and I heard there are 12 teachers still there.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, as forecasted, it began to snow. APS middle schools were dismissed early at 1:30 p.m., elementary schools at 2:30, and the high schools were dismissed at the regular time of 3:30. Twelve hours later, due to bus transportation issues, students and teachers were stranded at schools. Gov. Nathan Deal has issued a state of emergency. People navigating home from work and students trying to get home from school alike are struggling with the weather and many got stuck on the interstate.

News agencies and the police department are urging drivers to stay off the roads this morning. Photo by J.D. Capelouto

News agencies and the police department are urging drivers to stay off the roads this morning. Photo by J.D. Capelouto

APS issued a public statement stating that they have “called an emergency Shelter in Place for all students and staff who remain in schools due to inclement weather and adverse road conditions” and that they are continuing to transport kids who are en route for buses and are permitting parents to pick up students.

Another E. Rivers mom, Cris Krachon, drove ten hours to pick up her three kids and six other neighborhood kids up and bring them home. They all arrived home safe at 11 p.m. after navigating through the traffic gridlock and abandoned vehicles.

“The traffic is completely clogged we moved 500 yards in an hour or something,” Krachon said. “And I called my husband and said okay we’re at this intersection and about half an hour later we were half way between that intersection and the next one, it was crazy … The school was dismissed at 2:30 but from what I heard the first buses didn’t even get to E. Rivers until four, five o’clock.”

Krachon said she thinks the schools did the right thing by having the kids spend the night at the school, instead of kids becoming stranded on buses as the alternative.

Whitlock said the teachers, who stayed at the schools with the kids, saved the day.

“The kids were watching the movies,” Whitlock said. “And they brought out the popcorn machine and I think they ordered pizza for them or made pizza. They had the kindergarten teacher and the PE coach was there and probably the teachers who don’t have families is my guess of the ones who were still at the school … They are real heroes for doing that, that’s pretty awesome.”

According to the APS’s Twitter feed, all schools in the South region were clear of students as of 10 p.m. while other schools are preparing places for students to sleep overnight and are seeking food.

Hunter Riggall, a sophomore from North Atlanta High School, was stranded at the school until a friend’s mom was able to pick him up.

“We were all moved into the gym after a couple hours,” Riggall said. “And we were all kinda just chilling. I left at 7:15 and they were bringing in milk from the cafeteria to pass out … Only three [buses] had arrived and taken people home when I left.”

Robert Leon, a North Atlanta junior, was not so lucky. After his parents spent more than seven hours in traffic, they abandoned their car to pick him up. Robert and his family walked home and arrived at around three in the morning.

“The teachers are really being good here. They stayed and didn’t have to,” Leon said. “Luckily I got out before everyone slept but I would imagine no one got sleep due just to the vast amount of people.”

Leon said all the students were put in the gym and library for the night and boys and girls were split up at around midnight. The hundreds of students were served cafeteria food. Girls were fed at nine p.m. and boys at 11. The situation at North Atlanta was organized for the most part, Leon said.

APS Manager of Public Relations and Special Events Kimberly Green wrote in a press release that there were a few challenges with food delivery at some locations, but thanks in part to the Atlanta Police Department, all students were eventually fed.

“Students are safe and continue to be supervised by staff and resource officers. The Georgia State Patrol is also on site,” Green wrote in the update, sent out at about 9 a.m. Wednesday. “We ask parents and guardians to bear with us.”

Icy and heavy traffic clogged streets late Tuesday, stranding many Atlantans on their commute home. Photo by Dave Winter

Grady math teacher John Rives also was not able to get home after school on Tuesday, due to the traffic gridlock on highways throughout the city.

“Well it’s very frustrating because I couldn’t get back to my residence,” Rives said. “It was a huge waste of time and I was driving for over three hours trying to get out to the perimeter or to get back to my house and that just wasn’t working. It was an emotionally exhausting afternoon by the time I decided I was going to have to have some help and not be able to get home.”

Rives stayed with friends who live closer to the school and hopes to get back to his house Wednesday afternoon, which is normally a 45-minute drive from Grady.

“I think they did the best that they could under the circumstances,” Rives said. “I don’t think anybody in all the school systems and in all the counties anticipated that it was going to be this much snow this quickly in the day.”

North Atlanta senior Maggie Neel knows multiple students and teachers who were stranded at school overnight. Though she checked out of school early to beat the traffic and the icy roads, Neel feels that APS handled the situation in a poor manner.

“It started snowing at 11, that’s when they should have mobilized the buses, if only for precaution,” Neel said. “Because now these poor bus drivers, administrators, students and teachers are away from their families and homes and these bus drivers are now driving in awful conditions in the dark.”

APS issued another public statement around 5:00 a.m. Wednesday morning reporting that there were seven students making their way home on buses and several hundred still at school, and their Twitter feed indicated that by around 2 p.m. Wednesday, all students were on buses on the way home.

APS Superintendent Erroll B. Davis released a statement on Thursday apologizing for “challenges and difficulties that our students, families and employees have faced over the past few days.” He thanked the bus drivers who faced the icy roads to transport students and the school employees for staying overnight with stranded students. He also announced that school would close on Friday to give students and employees more time to recover.

“Ultimately, we are accountable for the decisions that we as leaders make,” Davis wrote. “If we had to repeat this scenario, we would do things differently … As we review our crisis management protocols and procedures, we will involve the feedback of students, parents and our employees to improve our emergency preparedness.”

 

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Snow Storm Leaves APS Students Stranded at School