Local News

HCPSS Weather Safety Decisions Accumulate Outrage among Residents

As Mt. Hebron students entered the doors to begin their school day on Tuesday, Jan. 12, all that could be heard was the ongoing conversation between seemingly every group of students as to why school was still in session that day despite everyone having to deal with horrible road conditions, hazardous tree limbs crashing down in every direction, and sidewalks covered in sheets of ice that made a walk to school more like a self-taught ice skating lesson directly adjacent to traffic-filled roads. Students had to be careful not to bump into anyone as they walked and overheard these conversations, though, due to the deprivation of light which was a result of the power outage.

Sunday, Feb. 10 and Monday, Feb. 11 exhibited a continuous mixture of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Enough precipitation had fallen and littered the roads, sidewalks, and parking lots around the county prior to the school day Monday to convince HCPSS to cancel school.

The forecast on Monday night suggested that temperatures would climb high enough overnight to melt the ice and snow that had been falling for the past day and a half. When Tuesday morning arrived, however, freezing rain and sleet was still falling, and the temperature was more than five degrees lower than anticipated, at a range of 31 to 33 degrees fahrenheit around the county.

Trees were even more frozen and weighed down with ice than they were the day before, and for several morning hours, large limbs could be heard snapping practically every minute. Many of the limbs that could be seen laying in the middle of roads or in people’s yards were large enough to severely injure a large bear, let alone a small elementary schooler.

Power outages dismantled the morning routines of hundreds of families in the HCPSS district. Multiple schools suffered outages as well, including Mt. Hebron, Marriotts Ridge, and Glenelg.

Most driveways, roads, and sidewalks were slick enough due to ice to pose the threat to students of slipping, which could cause injury through the impact of hitting the ground on a fall, or worse, send the student tumbling into the street, where there is the risk of cars hitting him or her, which would result in serious injury or even death.

All of these blatant health risks caused thirteen Maryland counties to cancel school, while only three stopped the schedule alteration at just a delay.

Despite all of these highly unfavorable and perilous conditions and the idea that the decision to cancel school was made by the majority of neighboring school districts, HCPSS officials made the very controversial decision to keep the alteration to the schedule at just a delay, rather than cancelling school altogether.

Many students anticipated an announcement to come over the intercom that would tell them they were going to be dismissed early, but such an alert was never issued. Not only did the people in charge make a mistake by deciding not to cancel school in the first place, but they also refused to correct their error and send the students home. Students at Glenelg High School were sent home after the school failed to regain power, but this was the only school in the county that enjoyed this luxurious safety-related decision.

Angry HCPSS parents had several suspicions as to why this infamous decision was made. One of these intuitions came from an email that was sent on Monday, Feb. 11 to all of Howard County that included the new school calendar, updated with the snow days that are to be tacked on after the original last day of school. Howard County has in the past been so obsessed with keeping everything uniform and eliminating necessities to reschedule things. This history of laziness pointed parents to the idea that the HCPSS front office purposefully kept school in session to avoid adding another day onto the end of the year.

Another notion that was derived from this lethargic past is that HCPSS has been very hesitant in the past to cancel Board of Education meetings. One of these meetings was scheduled for Tuesday, so it is a speculation among parents that the HCPSS officials chose against cancelling school so that they would not need to go through the trouble of rescheduling their meeting.

Students were equally as dismayed about the front office decision on Tuesday. Junior Dharshan Varia was especially passionate about the topic.

“I believe that not cancelling school was a grave mistake by the county,” Varia explained.

“When I was walking to my bus stop, I almost slipped and fell into the road, which could have been catastrophic. I know that my case wasn’t even the worst, with multiple trees hitting cars and incidents across the county.”

Varia also went on to discuss his frightening experience of the power outage at school, describing how everyone “rushed to gather in the cafeteria,” without a clue in the world as to why they were still in a school that didn’t even have power.

A survey that was conducted was very telling as to how uncomfortable children were with going to school in what seemed like a textbook day to cancel school on. The survey consisted of 112 Mt. Hebron students.

109 of the students, or 97%, believed that Howard County Public Schools should have been closed on Tuesday due to safety concerns. 53 or 47% of the students reported that he or she was without power at his or her residence for some amount of time between Monday and Tuesday at 2:00 in the afternoon, when the survey was conducted. 101 or 90% of students replied that he or she was concerned for his or her safety while traveling to school. The same value applied for how much of the student population viewed the road conditions as being unsafe on Tuesday on the way to school. 108 or 96% of students shared that the sidewalks and other surfaces near and on the way to school were slippery.

Road safety concerns, slippery sidewalks, and widespread power outages are all individually a realistic reason for school cancellation. This magnifies the insanity of the idea that all three of these factors being in effect simultaneously didn’t seem to be enough for Martirano and company to keep the students home safe.

To top it all off, the school system made yet another appalling decision the following day, when they issued a two-hour delay for reasons which no one could decipher. The temperature never got below 34 degrees fahrenheit from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, and by the time students arrived at school at around nine o’clock, the temperature was about 40 degrees and there was essentially no ice remaining on the ground, and any ice or snow that was left was melting rapidly.

These were not the first questionable calls made by the system this school year, either. During the last few days of January, there was a cold front that quite literally froze most of America, which left countless citizens suffering in single-digit and even negative degree temperatures. In Howard County, the temperature was under ten degrees at 9:00 A.M., the time students departed for school on the two-hour delay schedule. The “real-feel” temperature, which takes into account factors such as wind chill and humidity, (or a lack thereof, in this case), and creates an artificial temperature to describe how the air really feels on human skin, was negative six degrees fahrenheit. Similar to the more recent situation, Howard County residents believed that the delay call was correct, but thought that school should have been cancelled altogether after the temperature did not warm up to a safe level.

Following his debatable call, Martirano sent out an email to all Howard County staff members to thank them for caring for the students despite them being in school in conditions that should have been enough to cancel it. He made a stab at an apology, but still tried to play it off as if the roads were fine.

The email read, “although road conditions were much improved today, ice caused many tree limbs and power lines to fall, resulting in blocked roadways and power outages. Many downed tree limbs remain, resulting in some schools experiencing intermittent power losses throughout the day. Thank you for ensuring that our students were well taken care of today. Your high level of care and compassion for students provides a warm, welcoming and safe environment every day.”

The next paragraph put hope into the minds of staff across the county that the next weather decisions that were to be made would be done so extra carefully.

“As the winter season continues, please rest assured that my decision to close, dismiss early or delay opening schools will always prioritize the safety of our staff and students.”

No one can be sure why the superintendent and his coworkers have made the decisions they have as of late, but the one concern most Howard County residents with students in the school system have in common is whether or not the HCPSS front office will truly begin to make choices in regards to the safety of its students, rather than simply what benefits themselves the most. With another upcoming snow storm arriving on Wednesday, Feb. 20, the spotlight is on Martirano and his associates.

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