Kent School District adopts new snow protocols

The perfect storm of bad timing and rapidly changing road conditions wreaked havoc on the Dec. 20 morning commute and caused staff and administrators for the Kent School District to re-evaluate the district’s snow policies.

The perfect storm of bad timing and rapidly changing road conditions wreaked havoc on the Dec. 20 morning commute and caused staff and administrators for the Kent School District to re-evaluate the district’s snow policies.

In light of the Dec. 20 snow event, a day on which many school districts around the area delayed or cancelled classes but Kent Schools stayed open and attempted to operate on a normal schedule, district administration requested a review of the district’s inclement weather policies and protocols, the results of which were presented to the School Board on Jan. 8.

The role of assessing area roads in the case of a snow or ice event has historically been the task of the transportation department which would send out a team at 4 a.m. to assess area roads around the district, and the call about delaying or closing schools would be made by district leadership by 5 a.m. to give the community time to plan accordingly.

This plan ran into trouble Dec. 20 when the roads were clear earlier in the morning but the snow arrived after the initial call to remain open and on schedule was made.

District spokesman Chris Loftis wrote in an email interview that three buses were involved in “minor accidents” and, “Anecdotally, we heard about many small accidents, fender benders, folks sliding off the road, vehicles stuck in snow, etc. We had no reports of injuries.”

Loftis also wrote that the number of students absent that day, “ran into the thousands,” and that hundreds of staff members were also absent.

In the aftermath, apologies were issued by the administration to staff and families and Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas requested the review of procedures and that changes be made.

The  major change to the district’s process is that decision making in regard to weather will now go through the district’s Emergency Command Center which is overseen by the Safety Services Department.

Aspects and goals of this change include creating a centralized command, keeping student and staff safety at the forefront of decision making, increased data gathering through local agencies and the National Weather Service, increased response coordination with city and county agencies, increasing the number of road surveyors, using staff weather spotters, increasing coordination with other school districts, creating a color coding system to identify the severity of a storm, increase the use of technology in monitoring weather changes and challenges, improved communication with media outlets, and increased flexibility to responding to rapidly changing conditions.

“Safety Services has the personnel, multiagency contacts, technology, mobility, and expertise to handle the ongoing and real-time assessment of road conditions across the entire district, the coordination of multiple key decision makers in Transportation, Nutrition Services, Facilities, Student & Family Support Services, and Instruction  as well as the immediate connectivity with local first responders and other area school districts,” information provided by the district stated. “Using this approach, our new inclement weather response system will broaden the number, locations, perspectives, and response capacities of the decision making team. It will increase both our coverage and our flexibility.”

In the neighboring Tahoma School District, administrators use much the same system as Kent’s previous approach, relying on the transportation department and information from outside agencies with the final call being made by district leadership.

“When there are indications that we could have unfavorable road conditions due to snow and ice, we put our severe weather plan into effect,” Tahoma School District Spokesman Kevin Patterson wrote in an email interview Monday. “What that means is our transportation (department) will begin checking road conditions at about 3:30 a.m. by driving certain routes throughout the district, talking to King County Sheriff’s deputies who patrol the area and also talking with highway maintenance staff from King County. We assess roads to ensure that our buses can travel safely. That assessment is then presented to the administrators who will make the call, including the superintendent. A final decision is made by 5 a.m. so that we have time to contact parents and staff members if we will be running two hours late or if there is a school closure.”

On Dec. 20 Tahoma initially delayed school two hours but as conditions worsened, officials made the call to cancel school.

In the Auburn School District, which also neighbors Kent, the process begins at approximately 2 a.m. according to Deputy Superintendent Mike Newman.

Newman wrote in an email Tuesday that the district uses web based tools to monitor the weather and also has a system of three people driving roads across the district who then make a recommendation to the superintendent.

Ultimately, the goal for KSD officials is to stay focused on student and staff safety and to increase communication and flexibility in responding to snow events.