Bob Mitchell, principal of Ebb Valley Elementary School in Carroll County, said there's an old saying: "If you don't like the weather in Maryland, wait 15 minutes and it will change."
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Ebb Valley and the Carroll school system Friday morning, "This time, it didn't change for the better," Mitchell said.
Mitchell and at least 80 of his students were caught in a sudden snowstorm — and in a storm of controversy — as some school buses turned around on their way to school Friday and took students back home after a late decision to close schools.
"It was pretty dicey," Mitchell said.
School system officials said about one- hird of students were affected by the decision, which was made by Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie shortly after 7 a.m., at least 90 minutes later than usual in snow situations.
"We try to make the call by 5 a.m. if possible, and certainly by 5:30," so that parents, bus drivers and staff can be alerted before buses and cars hit the roads, said Mike Hardesty, director of transportation for the school system.
The timing of the snow early Friday caught school system officials and county road crews by surprise, said Hardesty and school system spokeswoman Carey Gaddis. They said snow flurries as late as 5:45 a.m. led them and the meteorologists they contacted to believe that the snow wasn't that big a deal.
At 6 a.m., the snow intensified, and by 7:15 a.m., Guthrie had made the decision to close schools for the day. By that time, so-called "Tier 1" buses that start earliest in the day were already on the road. Some turned around and took students back home, much to their parents' surprise, as soon as the drivers got text messages from their area supervisors about the decision to close schools. Other buses had already arrived and those students were sent home late in the morning.
"We were able to keep two-thirds of our students out of school,." Gaddis said.
Hardesty said schools that were most affected included the county's eight high schools and three of the elementary schools — Ebb Valley, Friendship Valley and Eldersburg. Other schools had later start times and those students weren't on the road yet, Hardesty and Gaddis said.
At Ebb Valley, in Manchester, three of 10 buses arrived at the school as word was coming down that schools were closing, Mitchell said. Those students were supervised by the few teachers who trickled in, and the students were served breakfast before being sent home. One bus was pulling into the parking lot just as the driver was getting a text message that schools were being closed, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said roads were so bad as he drove to school from Gettysburg, Pa., that his usual half-hour ride turned into more than an hour. He said he set out for school because a transportation supervisor told him school was still on, so, "I knew they had not canceled."
But they did soon thereafter.
"It was pretty chaotic," Mitchell said.
Hardesty, a 14-year transportation veteran of Carroll schools, said it was the first time he can recall that a decision was made to close schools after buses had already left for schools.
In a letter to employees, Guthrie said, "The decision was made to open on time, but it was later decided to close schools. Obviously, in hindsight, the best decision would have been to close schools today in the first place."
Guthrie also said, "The decision to close was made late based on the road conditions that were continuing to deteriorate. At that time, one third of our students were being transported or were already at school and second-tier school students were at bus stops. However, given the still deteriorating road conditions and the estimated time for county roads crews to treat all roads, we felt it was then the safest decision to close schools for the day and transport all students who were already at schools back home."
Guthrie concluded, "The snow event this morning occurred at the worst time and was of much greater intensity than forecasted. In addition, we did not anticipate untreated county roads at the beginning of our bus runs. Again, in retrospect the decision this morning was not the best outcome. I apologize for the inconvenience for students, parents, and employees. I will meet with the Transportation Department to determine what changes can be made to our process and to ensure better communication with our County Roads Department."
"We'll meet," Hardesty said. "There's probably some things we could do better in terms of getting kids home."
But Gaddis said she wasn't sure much could be done when the timing of the snow was that inopportune.
"Once the process starts, you've got buses on the road," she said. "I don't think you can stop that process."
Facebook was buzzing with debate about whether Guthrie made the right decisions. Gaddis said she had received at least 40 emails about it and Hardesty said he too was getting emails and phone calls.