Last Updated on November 23, 2020 3:57 pm
BOONE — With winter quickly approaching, Watauga County Schools would like to remind families how the district makes and communicates decisions about the operation of school during inclement weather.
This year, thanks to additional equipment and student laptops purchased in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district plans to utilize remote learning on certain school days that would have otherwise been cancelled and later made up due to inclement weather.
Superintendent Scott Elliott said the districts’ period of remote learning in the fall had prepared WCS with the equipment and experience it needed to operate school remotely on snow days this winter.
“Our experience with remote learning has given us the opportunity for the first time to hold school remotely on days that winter weather would have ordinarily forced us to close our doors,” Elliott said. “While remote learning can’t fully replace what our students experience in our classrooms in person, it will give us much needed flexibility to mitigate the impact missing 15 to 20 days a year because of inclement weather can have on instruction.”
Elliott said that using remote learning to replace snow days this year would eliminate the need for Saturday school, protect Christmas and Spring break and help ensure that the school year would not need to be extended into late June to make-up for snow days. However, remote days will not completely eliminate the need to make up all the days Watauga Schools typically miss each year.
This year, the North Carolina General Assembly mandated that school districts build five remote learning days into their calendars. Watauga County Schools used the first of those required days to close school buildings for students on Election Day. Elliott said the remaining four would be used to cover snow days — especially before Christmas break so that exams could be given at the high school before students went home for the holidays.
“If we find that these remote learning days are successful, we have the option to use more if we need to,” Elliott said. “We’ve had a very productive experience with remote learning in the past, and if we see those high levels of participation and good use of time continue going forward, it’s my hope we will be able to use remote learning even further to limit the number of days missed.”
However, Elliott warned that if the days are not used effectively, then remote learning on snow days will be limited moving forward.
While WCS has been able to provide take home devices to many students over the course of this year — along with more than 200 wifi hotspots provided to homes with no landline internet access — Elliott said there were still pockets the community for whom high speed internet access was simply not available.
“Remote learning this year has made it more clear than ever that a number of families across our county face significant challenges accessing high speed internet,” Elliott said. “Teachers will work with students who won’t be able to access the internet at home to prepare materials to supplement their remote learning days. It’s not necessarily an ideal solution, but until high speed internet infrastructure is extended into rural communities across Watauga, our staff will do everything possible to ensure our students have equal access to the materials they need to learn.”
Elliott said that, while remote learning days provided much needed flexibility in long and often severe winters, it was still his priority to get students into school buildings in person when it is safe to do so. The district will still continue with it’s long implemented standards for early morning road checks and close contact with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va. on days with inclement weather.
When bad weather begins overnight, the process for making decisions about the operation of school kicks off at 3 a.m. when Elliott and Transportation Director Jeff Lyons begin the process of gathering information about road conditions and the most current weather forecast.
By 3:30 a.m., a road check team consisting of Elliott, Lyons, and other staff members begins driving assigned routes to check road conditions throughout Watauga County. Lyons and Elliott both routinely participate in a morning live conference call with National Weather Service meteorologists in Blacksburg, VA at 4:30 a.m.
In an average winter, crews are on the road approximately 40 mornings.
The final decision about school schedules and bus routes is based on information gathered from the road check team, NCDOT, local law enforcement and the latest weather forecasts.
That decision is normally made before the first school bus departs at 5:25 a.m. and is announced in several ways: a statement at the top of all pages of school websites at www.wataugaschools.org; via local media outlets; by automated phone messages, email, and text messages to parents; via Twitter at @WataugaSchools; and through a recorded snow line message at (828) 264-0200.
If you have questions about the limited bus routes for your school, you can get more information at wataugaschools.org/limitedroutes, or by contacting the WCS Transportation Department at (828) 264-6391.
Watauga County Schools are closed an average of approximately 15 days per year for snow and ice, with wide variation around that average. The number of days missed has ranged from a low of four days in 1990-91 to a peak of 39 days in 1977-78. The system missed 20 days for weather last school year.
Elliott said as winter weather approaches, it’s important that parents update their contact information with their school’s front office, as that information will be used to announce closing, delay and emergency information.