Since mid-December, ACPS and the city of Alexandria have experienced some of the most severe weather challenges in our history.
Over 4 feet of snow this winter — depending on exactly where you live and where the measurement is taken. Our snow total has far exceeded that in states and communities that are prepared for and accustomed to heavy snow — more than Maine and other New England states, considerably more than Chicago, etc.
Our area was officially declared a disaster area after the December snow and almost certainly will receive that designation for the snowfall in February, allowing for federal money to be released to help us with the extraordinary costs of clearing snow from our streets, lots, sidewalks, and roofs.
All of my decisions regarding closing schools or late openings were done following extensive conversations with the city manager, Chief of Police, Fire Chief, and others with one factor controlling all decisions: the safety of our students.
I used a decision making matrix of six areas:
(The first 3 were more areas that the city focused on and the last three were areas of schools' responsibilities)
Based on this matrix, we completed tasks to have our schools ready to reopen on Tuesday, February 16. However, based on the 3 areas related to the city, and in consultation with city officials, we agreed that we could not open schools safely to students on Tuesday.
But no school is an island. We live and work in a city which tried very hard to open roads, clear sidewalks, and take care of public safety. Thank you all — too many to mention — who worked to the point of exhaustion to make this happen.
A note about Tuesday: My decision not to open school Tuesday was my decision, with input from city officials and school staff. I thank our Chief of Police, the Fire Chief, the city manager, and the many city department heads for their honest risk assessment.
Many of our employees worked 12 and 15 hour days, even sleeping on cots in the city Emergency Operations Center, sometimes doing backbreaking work and using great ingenuity. A few who deserve HUGE thanks — who lived, ate, slept, and probably dreamt snow emergency for more than 10 days — are:
When we did come back to school, mounds of snow and limited traffic lanes could have caused havoc. Many thanks to the Alexandria City Police for sending officers to every school this week. They have directed traffic and kept the lanes moving, making the most efficient use of the space (Kiss and Learn lanes) available and also ensuring the safety of walking students.
And thanks to our wonderful parents and PTA organizations for organizing "shoveling parties."
Some might say that all this extra work is part of our jobs: This is correct. Yet for these past two weeks it was not just about doing our jobs — it was about trying to make decisions in a conservative, deliberate, and safe manner.
Let me begin with our cost — so far — to get our schools up and running. The cost to ACPS for clearing school lots and roofs was about $1.3 million. We expect that FEMA will declare the city/area a disaster area as they did after the December snow, and much of this will be reimbursed.
How much is normally budgeted for ACPS specifically to handle snow removal? Zero...because our MOU with the City calls for the City to clear ACPS parking lots,driveways, and bus stops after a snow, and our current personnel clear steps and sidewalks. Because of the severity of this storm, the city's focus had to be on clearing emergency routes, a process which took repeated plowing and salting and many days. Therefore, we hired outside contractors to do our snow removal.
It is important for the Board and the community to understand some of the challenges resulting from a historic snowfall as opposed to a normal snowfall of 4 to 8 inches.
First, as all of you who shoveled your driveway know, you cannot simply push 40 inches of snow aside. It takes repeated plowing and shoveling.
Second, there was no place to put that much snow. Since last Thursday, Feb. 11, workers have had to load snow into trucks that hauled it away. What remained has limited the number and width of lanes on roads, has hampered visibility, and has left bus stops under 10 to 12 foot high mounds of ice.
Third, we feared that snow as deep as 3 to 6 feet could exceed the weight that our roofs were designed to hold. (Thanks to Dave and to Margaret for researching this.) Most roof structures in Virginia were designed to support a roof snow load of about 20 to 30 pounds per square foot. (A roof designed to carry a snow load of 20 lbs. per sq. ft. is expected to support nearly 12 inches of wet, heavy snow. We had considerably more than 12 inches of snow on many of our roofs, including drifts of 3 to 6 feet.)
After the first of the most recent snows, on Monday, Feb. 8, David Conrath and city inspectors examined schools, fire stations, and other structures and determined that we needed to clear some of the weight off of many roofs — with the highest priority for those that were occupied, like fire stations, nursing homes, and emergency shelters.
Dave located and hired more than 100 roofing professionals who had experience moving large amounts of snow, some local and some from as far away as Boston. Dave located five cranes, heavy trucks, and other snow moving equipment. The city also mobilized substantial outside help in the form of people and equipment. At one point, the Mayor mobilized the National Guard to help.
Ultimately, these crews moved about 15 million pounds of snow from our school roofs in 7 days — half of the snow that was on the roofs — to bring the total amount to a safe level. They cleared all drains and vents to prevent safety hazards.
Some people have questioned why there was so much snow on our school lots as late as Sunday, Feb. 14. Remember, the lots had to be cleared to get the heavy equipment in to work on the roofs. Then they had to be cleared again of the snow that came from the roofs.
Many people have written to express frustration that we were not able to open earlier, but no school in ACPS will ever be open to children until inspectors have assured us that the structures are safe.
In this case, our staff was proactive in seeking information and the necessary personnel to ensure that our buildings are safe. They deserve our heartfelt gratitude for their thoroughness and professionalism.
In addition, David Rose drove the bus routes several times and discovered numerous ones impassable as late as Monday. Even today some routes are impassable — we are using alternate routes and alternate bus stops in many cases. The sidewalks and bus stops must be safe for children so that they do not have to stand in the street.
As you may have seen on the news, three schools nearby have had buildings condemned or have had roofs collapse from the snow: Manasses, Blacksburg, and Chancellorsville. NO ACPS structure is currently at risk, and we are continually monitoring for water damage, leaks, crumbling mortar. We have asked principals to report any concern, no matter how small.
I have perhaps provided more information that you wanted or needed to know, but I would like to emphasize to all of our parents who have written with suggestions, complaints, and compliments these two things:
And as I end this part of my report, there are three areas we need to revisit as we plan for the next emergency:
Cathy David will report on how we plan to make up the lost instructional time. We have communicated with state officials and will continue to advocate for some later SOL testing periods. With the leeway we have in our assigned "window" we are recommending that ACPS move the scheduled SOL writing test from March 3 and 4 to March 9 and 10. Cathy might have more to say on that topic.
Before I call on Cathy, I want to comment briefly on the suggestions that we not make up all of the time, that we ask the state for a waiver. And perhaps we will not make up every single day — having, as we do three days more in our calendar than the state requires.
First, neither we nor any other school division have any guarantee that the state would grant a waiver. We would be required to show that we have exhausted all possible avenues to make up the time, including using spring break, extending the school year, and so on.
More important, I believe that instructional time led by dedicated and skilled teachers is important. Long ago, we recognized the needs of our specific population and, noting how many of our children begin school having little or no pre-school experience, determined that here in Alexandria we should not just meet the state requirements but that we should exceed them. This School Board in the Strategic Plan reinforced this commitment.
I am determined that the make-up time will be focused, appropriate to each age group and each school population, and that it will provide important interventions and/or enrichment. On Tuesday, we called all teachers in to work with their principals on how to best use that time to help children. Some truly creative ideas have come from our professional educators, including the use of more play or recess time for very young children. Yes, it is the quality — not the quantity — of time that is important, and we will have both.
Early childhood education students intern with the Alexandria Head Start program and provide assistance at the Tiny Titan Daycare Center housed in T.C. Williams High School.
© 2012 Alexandria City Public Schools, 2000 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria, Virginia 22311
Information: 703.824.6600 | TDD: 703.824.6666 | Dr. Morton Sherman, Superintendent