By mtjulietintern
Jared Felkins • Mt. Juliet News Students at Watertown High School brave the snow and ice Friday morning to get to class.

Jared Felkins • Mt. Juliet News
Students at Watertown High School brave the snow and ice Friday morning to get to class.

When snow suddenly hit Wilson County on Friday morning, local school systems were left to make tough decisions about whether to close.

The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory from 6:30 a.m. until midnight. However, many buses for Wilson County Schools and the Lebanon Special School District were already on the roads by the time the advisory was issued.

Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson said the district’s director of transportation was on the roads at about 3 a.m., and Benson himself was on the roads at 4 a.m.

“The roads really looked good then, and with the information we had, the forecast seemed like we weren’t going to be in bad shape,” Benson said.

Benson decided it would be in the best interest to keep schools open. He made a similar decision Thursday afternoon, when snow was forecast to possibly hit Lebanon. A winter weather advisory was also issued Thursday from noon until midnight.

“Some other school districts went ahead and closed early [Thursday], but we looked at the information we had, and we thought it would be OK to stay open,” Benson said. “Obviously, that was the right call.”

The Lebanon Special School District gets information from the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency about the status of roads and any possible bad weather, Benson said.

By 6:30-7 a.m., Benson said he was sticking with his decision. Once it became obvious the roads were too treacherous for schools to remain open, officials quickly began trying to get children back home safely.

“We made the call at 7:15,” Benson said. “Some buses had already dropped kids off at school, and at some schools we had parents coming to drop kids off, and we were just waving them right on through and telling them that schools were closing. It takes a while for the message to get out to parents, and for the media to pick it up.”

For Wilson County Schools, the same situation presented itself on a larger scale. According to Jennifer Johnson, spokesperson for the school system, Wilson County went through a similar process.

“We considered [closing schools] all through the night and probably up to the 5 a.m. hour,” she said. “[Friday] morning, the weather model indicated it was not going to come as far north as Wilson County, so we sent the buses out at about 5:15. It was not until 6:30, when we had 60 percent of our students at school or on their way to school, that the snow started coming.”

The school system announced schools would close early, with schools that start during the 7 a.m. hour closing at 11:15 a.m., and schools that start during the 8 a.m. hour closing at 12:30 p.m.

One reason that the schools closed later, Johnson said, was to give bus drivers enough time to hit all of their routes, as some buses carry students from multiple schools. Another reason was to give parents notice in case they were not at home.

Officials with the Lebanon Special School District can sympathize with the conundrum of parents who aren’t home to get their children off the school bus.

“We had bus drivers bring kids back to school because they were making sure there was someone at home before letting the child get off the bus,” Benson said. “We made arrangements and made sure every child got home safely.” 

Johnson said she fielded many questions from parents Friday about the decision to close schools at a later time.

“I’ve heard people throw around ‘it’s all about the money,’ but there’s absolutely zero truth to that,” she said. “There’s no money involved. We have snow days set aside already. We staggered the times to help our bus drivers and parents.”

Johnson said Wilson County Schools could have chosen to open late, but at the time, it did not seem like the best decision.

“It’s always easier when you have the benefit of hindsight,” she said. “Weather is a moving target, and we did the best we could with the circumstances in front of us. There are human beings making decisions, and we’re not always going to get it right. If we had it all to do again, we would have closed school completely, no question.”

Buses in Wilson County were able to take students home, except in Watertown, where the roads were worse than in other parts of the county.

Watertown High School principal Jeff Luttrell, who has no involvement in decisions on buses, said he agreed with the plan not to run buses in Watertown on Friday.

“We’ve got a lot more rural roads and higher elevations out here,” Luttrell said. “As a parent, I wouldn’t want my kid on a bus out in this.”

Johnson said no absences would be counted Friday at any Wilson County schools.

“We respect the discretion of parents,” she said. “If parents decided not to send their children to school, regardless of the decision we made, that’s fine.”

By Jake Old

jold@lebanondemocrat.com