Monticello School District, transportation company explain last-minute school cancelation

“Well, I guess school’s on as usual for the day!” This refrain, or something similar, was likely repeated in homes throughout Monticello this morning as parents and kids awoke to a winter wonderland on this spring day.

However, with Monticello nowhere to be found on any school district cancelation lists, mornings commenced and buses arrived to transport middle and high school students … and that’s where “normal” ended on this snowy April day.

Kari and Joe Kounkel, Hoglund Transportation managers,  said quickly deteriorating visibility and weather conditions forced the last-minute decision to cancel school today, even with some students already en route.

Each day there is questionable weather, Kounkel said they and school superintendent Jim Johnson get out on the roads at about 4 a.m. to assess the conditions. Johnson said he communicates with people getting information from the National Weather Association as well, and a decision needs to be made around 5:15 a.m.

“At that time, there was virtually no snow at all,” Johnson said. “All the predictions at that time said the heaviest snow was not going to start until around 9 a.m. here. The idea was that we would get the kids to school in time before the heaviest snow started.”

By the time the school day ended, Johnson said it looked as though the plows would be out in plenty of time to provide a safe passage home.

However, Johnson said that shortly after 7 a.m. snow was coming down hard and some bus drivers were reporting troubles navigating their routes. So with some kids already at their schools and others still on the school bus, the district decided the best course of action was to close school.

“It clearly came in much more quickly than anticipated,” Johnson said. “We became concerned about that second route we would need to do.”

“If we can manage the roads and the conditions, then we should go,” Kounkel added. “At 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., we could. At 7:30 a.m. we couldn’t.”

Middle and high school students were brought to school, and then sent back out on buses at 8 a.m. after parents were notified via robo-call at 7:20 a.m.

Monticello parent Chrissie Smith first heard of the school cancelation from her middle school-age daughter, who was riding the bus to school at the time.

“I thought it was kind of silly,” she said of the last-minute cancelation. “With as much snow that was coming down when Maddie went out to the bus stop, that call should have been made before they were on the bus.”

Smith said she was concerned the district decided to put students back on the roads right away rather than waiting for the snow to taper off and plows to get out.

“I thought they should just leave them [at school], rather than getting them back onto the roads where there is a chance for an accident,” she said.

But with the weather defying predictions and catching the district off guard this morning, Johnson said they became uncertain about whether they could safely transport students back home at the end of the day or not.

“You’re looking into a crystal ball at that point, trying to make a decision, so we decided to get the kids home with their parents where they would be safe,” Johnson said.

Kounkel said that the weight of this snowfall created the concern that plows would have a hard time getting the snow moved. She felt dropping the kids off might have gotten harder the longer they waited.

Johnson said the decision to drop students back off would have been a different situation if it were the elementary school students, since there would be more concern about whether or not their parents were still home.

“You’re talking middle and high school students, which is a lot different ball game than if you’re talking about elementary kids in that situation,” he said.

Nearby Districts Had Similar Experiences

Similar situations played out in nearby Big Lake and St. Michael-Albertville, where last-minute decisions to cancel left parents confused and students either on school buses or at school by the time cancelations were announced.

St. Michael-Albertville sent school buses back to homes immediately upon cancelation, without bringing students into the school first. Social media lit up with questions and stories exchanged as parents informed one another about the latest news in lieu of official news from the districts.

“The only reason I know my kids don’t have school is because of Facebook!” said one social media commenter this morning, whose children attend school in Big Lake.

By 10 a.m. snow had tapered off to a flurry, and area students are left to enjoy what most hope is the very last snow day of the 2012-13 school year.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.