Fairfax schools responds to criticism of snow cancellation decision

After deciding to close schools Thursday, Fairfax Schools officials responded to criticism of the decision, saying that their primary concern is student safety as roads in the county remain difficult to drive.

The school system has come under fire for deciding to cancel classes Thursday — the third time this week — after a storm Tuesday delivered about four to six inches of snow.

In interviews with The Post, Jeff Platenberg, the Fairfax schools assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation, has said that he always errs on the side of caution when it comes to inclement weather and student drivers on sketchy roads.

“That's not a risk I’m willing to take,” Platenberg said, noting that he also does not make the decision to close schools to be popular with students, parents or teachers.

Washington Post chief meteorologist Jason Samenow characterized officials at Fairfax public schools Thursday as “weather wimps” for their decision to cancel classes.

“Amazingly, Fairfax County couldn’t get its act together to open schools today – more than 30 hours after the final flakes fell from what’s best described as a moderate snowstorm,” Samenow wrote. “Hardly crippling stuff.”

Samenow wrote that the accumulation of snow on Fairfax roads likely topped out at three inches. He concluded that about 30 hours after the snow began falling, the roads still might be covered with about an inch of wintry mix.

In a statement responding to Samenow's post, Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre said that the administration's “primary concern is student safety.”

Torre said that schools personnel observed bus routes and walkways around the county before deciding to cancel classes Thursday, determining that some roads and sidewalks were too treacherous. In Loudoun, school officials decided to cancel classes — and scheduled mid-term exams — for the rest of the week.

Thursday marked the sixth day classes were canceled in Fairfax. Students are already scheduled to attend school Feb. 17, the President’s Day holiday, and April 7, a teacher workday, to make up for lost time. Thursday’s cancellation will not be made up. If Fairfax cancels another day this winter, however, the school year will be extended in June.

In Fairfax County, snow cancellations, and decisions not to close schools, have triggered outrage before. In 2008, a student was given detention for igniting a campaign questioning the schools’ decision to stay open after it snowed. A student, Devraj “Dave” S. Kori, called the home phone of Dean Tistadt, Platenberg’s predecessor, and the teenager asked him why schools remained open. Scores of other students followed Kori’s lead and the Tistadt’s home phone rang off the hook day and night. Kori later apologized to Tistadt.

Below is the full statement from Fairfax County public schools:

“FCPS’ primary concern is always student safety when making a decision about opening schools. We consider all the methods of transportation that FCPS students use to get to school: school buses, walking to schools or bus stops, parent drivers, and student drivers. The decision-making process especially considers those teenagers who drive to high schools in the early morning hours before it is light, those students who walk, and those students waiting at bus stops. There are also many students who attend schools, centers, or programs that are long distances from their homes.

“In addition to main arteries such as I-66 and I-495, the county’s transportation system also includes narrow, winding roads in still relatively rural parts of the county such as Clifton and Great Falls. Fairfax County encompasses approximately 400 square miles and road conditions can vary significantly in different parts of the county. Yesterday and last evening, FCPS transportation supervisors traveled the routes our buses would traverse and inspected bus stops and the pathways walkers would be taking and found that throughout Fairfax County there were still considerable areas that were unsafe and treacherous. While VDOT has done an outstanding job with the main arteries, there are continuing safety concerns with secondary roads and sidewalks.

“We are hopeful that the additional time will give road crews, homeowners associations, and private citizens the opportunity they need to clear roads and sidewalks so that students may safely return to school.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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