TCAPS' Soma: 'This day caught us off-guard'

Paul Soma

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Central High School senior Joey Schepperly awoke expecting a snow day.

Instead he had a voice mail from his mother cautioning him to drive safely on the slick roads on his way to school.

"I was really, really surprised waking up this morning, especially since for the last nine hours the weather has just been terrible," Schepperly said this afternoon.

Public schools in Kalkaska, Mancelona, Elk Rapids, Alba and East Jordan canceled classes today, but other area districts, including Traverse City Area Public Schools, stayed open.

Schepperly checked the Grand Traverse 911 Facebook page before he left home and saw a post about the National Weather Service's winter weather advisory for the area. He drove slowly and made it to class 15 minutes late.

"It just got ignored by TCAPS," Schepperly said of the warning. "That was kind of frustrating."

School officials decide whether to cancel school by 6 a.m. TCAPS' Interim Superintendent Paul Soma said conditions weren't bad enough by that time to warrant a snow day, but he would have made a different decision if the whiteout hit earlier.

"If we would have known what we know then, we would have made a different decision," Soma said.

The National Weather Service in Gaylord issued a winter weather advisory today just before 4 a.m. that warned of a heavy lake effect snow band and gusty winds that "will result in low visibility and possibly local whiteout conditions at times and hazardous travel," the advisory read. It remained in effect until noon.

Soma said the district spans about 300 square miles, and six drivers were on the roads monitoring weather conditions in different parts of the county from 4 to 6 a.m.

"When we rechecked the conditions at 6 o'clock in the morning, visibility was excellent. I was one of the people that was on the roads," Soma said.

Elk Rapids resident Kathleen Ledezma hit the road at about 7:20 a.m. to take her daughter and two exchange students to Traverse City Central High School.

"My daughter usually drives them in, and she woke up this morning and said, 'I'm not driving in this, Mom,'" Ledezma said.

She made it to Acme and turned around with her three 11th-graders in tow. 

"You couldn't tell what was going on because it was blowing so hard through there you only got bursts of visual," Ledezma said. "One second you could see and the next you're wondering what's going on. At that point I turned around and came home. It just wasn't worth it."

School buses across Grand Traverse County already were picking up students as conditions worsened throughout the morning. Soma said it's too late to cancel school once students board the bus.

"Once buses are actively picking up students we can't turn them around and send them home to empty houses," he said. "Hence, the dilemma of the time of the decisions."

Soma said it's OK for parents to keep their children home from school when weather conditions are hazardous.

"If parents or guardians keep their kids home due to weather-related safety concerns, they should call the office and those kids will be excused," he said.

Megan Hall made the decision to keep her two daughters home from Kingsley Middle School after monitoring online comments from people who had already ventured out.

She said she was shocked to hear school was still in session when she could barely see what was outside her window.

"After seeing responses on Facebook and the road conditions from people who were actually out there, we decided we weren't going to risk our lives by going out on the road," Hall said. "When there's zero visibility you don't know who's stopped in front of you or who's coming at you. It's just not worth the risk."

Soma called Wednesday's decision to cancel "unfortunate."

"This day caught us off-guard, and that's just the flat-out truth," he said.

Hall and other parents said student safety should be the priority and contend snow day criteria has been inconsistent in the past.

"There's just no consistency. Why did they close Monday and not now?" Hall said. "Tomorrow is going to be even worse. We'll see what their call is then."

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