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Columbia Public Schools officials reflect on 2016 ice storm procedure

On Dec. 16, 2016, parts of mid-Missouri were caught off guard by an ice storm that was not in the forecast.

The storm presented a host of problems for drivers across Columbia, but Columbia Public School officials had an even bigger problem: how to get thousands of children home safely on roads that were slick enough to have already caused dozens of crashes across the county and stop traffic in its tracks.

The district opted out of an early dismissal because the timing of the storm was just late enough that officials couldn’t have had their drivers ready before the earliest regular dismissal time of 2:30 p.m.

“It wasn’t going to make a difference if we were to say early dismissal or not because the earliest we could make it happen is the same dismissal time,” said CPS community relations director Michelle Baumstark.

Baumstark said even if they could have made an early dismissal, they try to avoid doing it in general because it creates additional safety concerns for the students.

“We are worried about road conditions and getting kids home safely,” she said. “The worst outcome would be for them to arrive at home and be locked out of the house.”

After the storm, the district regrouped and discussed everything that happened, including an incident involving a bus from Two Mile Prairie Elementary School that didn’t get children home until the early hours of the morning. But in the end, Baumstark said with the timing, there wasn’t anything the district could have done differently.

“I think we would all agree it was a long night but ultimately we were able to get all of our students home,” she said. “You know what we would have changed? We would have changed that we would have known that the storm was going to take place.”

But Baumstark said the community came together to make creative decisions. Staff stayed late to be with students waiting for parents and employees who were licensed bus drivers stepped in and drove additional routes.

“For us, it was really important that we had such great support from first responders, road crews and our community to help us get those children home safely,” she said.

But the district does have winter weather policies that it’s able to follow when it has a forecast heads up.

Officials monitor several factors including the forecast in its decision for a delayed start, early dismissal or full day off.

“It isn’t just based on forecast,” said Baumstark.

They consider things like timing, the type of weather and the temperature at sunrise versus sunset. State law requires that six days tentatively are tacked on at the end of the school-year calendar law in case the school district needs to call a snow day. Any days that aren’t used drop off.

The district also relies heavily on its messaging system to communicate with parents via text or a call. Baumstark recommends all families update their contact information so they can be in the know about how winter weather will affect their child’s school day.

Baumstark said the system came in handy last year when the buses were not able to get to certain neighborhoods during the ice storm, and they had to text families there about alternate bus stops.

While everyone may not agree with the decisions they make, Baumstark said that in the end, the district will err on the side of safety in any winter weather incident.

“We will always make the decision based on what is safest for our students and staff,” she said.

If a family does decide to keep their child home during inclement weather and their school is not closed, that absence is excused, per district policy.

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