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A Winter’s Tale, as told by Emails from Fairfax County Public Schools

“Now this could only happen …in a town like this.” – Frank Sinatra. 

Fairfax County’s Public Schools (FCPS) have had the kind of week usually reserved for an embattled politician who sticks his foot in his mouth. Poor decisions have led to explanations, and then to further explanations, over-corrections, still more explanations, and apologies. In three days, parents of Fairfax County schoolchildren received nine emails.

The first missive came bright and early on January 6, at 7:49 a.m. The simple message, in its entirety:

The inclement weather may result in your child’s bus being delayed this morning. Please be patient and safe if you are driving this morning.

There was no official delay, since the weather didn’t look like it was going to be that bad early in the day.

But as Beltway denizens know, the storm was stronger than expected. What was supposed to be a dusting of snow ended up as a couple of inches. Buses couldn’t get around. Neither could teachers. Outrage had its snow tires on, though, and it managed to reach the school district’s Facebook page. Because Fairfax County rests in the shadow of Your Nation’s Capital, the school district naturally had to reply with a public statement, which came via email at 10:15 a.m.:

Dear Parents:

We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning. Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.

Weather conditions are expected to improve around midday. At this time, we are planning to dismiss schools at their normal dismissal time, however, we are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will keep parents apprised.

Just over an hour later, a follow-up email declared all evening activities and afternoon pre-school cancelled. (A neighbor whose child is in the afternoon preschool broke that news to a Fairfax County school bus driver, who had not been clued in.)

That must not have been enough for some parents. Just before 2:00 p.m. came a fourth email, entitled “Weather Update.” It was a second apology for the decision to open schools:

It is clear that our decision to keep schools open today was the wrong call given the intensity of this weather system. We are very sorry for that. We have heard from many of our families and we are listening. We thank you for your patience and working with us through this very difficult circumstance… Our focus now is to get our students and staff home safely this afternoon. Students who were unable to get to school today will be given excused absences.

Please know we will be going over our procedures and processes to make every improvement possible to avoid the situation we encountered this morning. We are closely monitoring the weather conditions and will make a decision with regard to schools opening tomorrow and will let families know, through our normal communication processes, as soon as possible.

“Going over our procedures” is, of course, complete bull meant to sound like deep introspection. “As soon as possible” was, predictably, quick. The follow-up email came at 6:12 p.m. As expected, there would be a two-hour delay on Wednesday.

For those in “real” America, Fairfax County surrounds Washington, D.C. and Arlington to the south and west. It covers lots of area, and it is common for one side of the county to have different weather from the other side. The school district covers all these areas, from communities around Alexandria banded with major roads to the more bucolic neighborhoods hugging the Potomac out by great falls. There were plenty of roads untreated; school buses would have had a hard time getting around on Wednesday.

Fairfax’s snow and ice removal system is solar-powered: they just let the stuff melt. While environmentally friendly, nasty side effects include re-frozen black ice spots lurking in the neighborhoods. As the sun set on Wednesday, FCPS sent out what was their only email of the day, alerting parents that the following day would see a second consecutive two-hour delay.

Less that 15 hours later – at 7:22 a.m. – Fairfax sent yet another email, cancelling school for Thursday. In the 48 hours since the surprise winter weather, Fairfax County had gone from a regularly scheduled day, to a two-hour delay, to a full-blown snow day. To explain their backward, bizarro reaction, FCPS made yet another statement. For the second time in three days, the email subject read, “Today’s Weather Decision”:

The decision to change from a two hour delayed opening to an all day closing for schools was made today because, as our bus drivers reported to work, it was evident that many of our buses would not start in this morning’s cold weather… In addition, the refreeze of snow and ice on residential streets and sidewalks also made walking and travel treacherous.

Not to pile on to what has been a week full of criticism for FCPS, but while it’s cold here this week, it has been colder in the past. School buses have surely survived worse. Also, why are the “treacherous” sidewalks and their safety implication afterthought to buses running on time? The snow day was either an obvious over-correction to Tuesday’s criticism or a subtle middle finger to the critics.

At least, in a show of progress, FCPS only had to apologize once for yesterday’s snow day. Their final email of the week (to date) announced today’s two-hour delay. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine emails in 72 hours, with all the message discipline and conviction of Trent Lott’s ill-advised BET interview after he was accused of wishing Strom Thurmond a happy birthday.

Look on the bright side, Fairfax County Public Schools: The next chance of wintry weather is coming up on Monday. You might just get a do-over!

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