Winter weather events provide blueprint for revised school planning

Survey points out deficiencies, proficiencies of response

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FULTON COUNTY, Ga. – More than 1,000 people provided input on ways to improve the Fulton School System’s handling and response to winter weather events, weighing in on decision making, communication and staff.

Two weather events – at the end of January and again in mid-February – disrupted school operations for several days and led to an unprecedented seven days of school closures.

The online survey conducted last month asked for input and assessments on how Fulton staff performed, as well as suggestions for improving response for future events.

As expected, most participants in the online survey gave high marks for the system’s handling of the second snow event in February, but were less generous in assessing the response to the Jan. 28 snowstorm. In that event, school system leaders were criticized for the delay in dismissing schools, which contributed to stranding thousands of students at school for hours because of transportation problems.

When asked what issues could have been improved, nearly 98 percent of participants cited the “timeliness of decision to dismiss school,” coupled with 55 percent saying “notification to parents” needed improvement.

School administrators made the decision to dismiss school at 2 p.m. on Jan. 28, but gave schools and parents little advance notice. By the time the message was broadcast, the metro roadways were a parking lot, leading to schools becoming overnight shelters for many students and staff.

On the positive side, school employees got high marks for their supervision of students and the “caring nature” of staff.

“We have taken all of these comments very seriously,” said Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. “First, we appreciate the critical feedback, and second we are acting on it.”

Avossa is one of only three education leaders on Gov. Nathan Deal’s Winter Weather Taskforce, and noted the results of the survey and the recommendations were presented to the task force for consideration.

But the information culled from the survey will be used locally, said Avossa, with much of it implemented already.

“In some ways, our work is just beginning,” said Avossa. “Fulton County has reflected on its current winter weather and emergency procedures. Immediate changes related to winter weather protocol were in place by the second winter storm.”

For next school year, Avossa said school leaders will be trained and exercised on a new set of guidelines dealing with delayed openings, early release and sheltering in place.

One recommendation Avossa will be looking to implement is establishing an emergency operations center to coordinate an emergency response and provide a central working space for all responders to share, track and gather information.

Another suggestion the system will work to develop is to ensure students continue learning, even when school is closed, through online learning opportunities.

MH 04-16-14