The recent string of snowstorms and freezing temperatures has led some to praise and others to question the county school system’s wherewithal to deal with winter weather.
With six weather-related school closings so far this winter, Fairfax County already has doubled its total from last year. But whether you react to snow days with delight or dread, grins or groans, Jeff Platenberg remains unfazed.
“My job isn’t to make sure everybody’s happy,” Platenberg said. “My job is to make sure everybody’s safe.”
The ultimate decision maker for weather-related closings and delays for county schools, Platenberg has had his work cut out for him this winter.
Snow caused two school cancellations in December and three last week, and subzero wind chills resulted in the county’s first-ever “cold day” in early January. Schools also have had a handful of two-hour delays.
For the school system, each decision is unique and comes with careful consideration.
The day before a potential closing or delay, Platenberg, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation services, monitors forecasts closely and consults with staff, the county government and weather experts. If a decision cannot be made that night, he sets his alarm for 3 a.m. so he can gather more information and input before making his final call by 4:30 a.m.
Still, each decision elicits reaction — especially last week, which saw school closed for three straight days following a Monday holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Parents and students took to Facebook and Twitter to make their opinions heard.
When schools were shuttered for a third straight day on Thursday, two days after the snowstorm, one parent wrote on the official FCPS Facebook page, “This closing is absolutely ridiculous.”
But another parent chimed in: “I definitely think this is the right choice FCPS.”
The back-and-forth continued on Friday, with one poster writing, “Just cancel school! What are the kids really gonna do in one day?”
Yet another took the opposite view, writing: “This is not fair to these kids. They need an education, NOT an extended vacation.”
Platenberg welcomes the banter.
“I want folks to let me know what they think about the decisions I make, positive and negative,” he said.
But according to the assistant superintendent, the bottom line is that the school system’s infrastructure is not set up to handle a winter this severe.
“It’s unnatural for us to have this extreme cold, so it definitely bit us,” Platenberg said. “Our facilities have actually weathered the storm rather well — no pun intended. But it’s the buses that have really been hit hard.”
For example, last Friday morning, more than 150 school buses — 10 percent of the county’s 1,500-strong fleet — experienced mechanical problems after sitting in the cold for a week, including frozen fuel lines and dead batteries.
The school system has teams that fire up the engines twice a day on days that schools are closed. But that could not keep all the vehicles running smoothly.
“We’ve done our best to keep up,” Platenberg said. “I think we’ve adjusted as well as we can. But I’m hoping we’ve seen an end to the cold for a few weeks at least.”