St. Paul public school leaders have multiple ways to communicate with students and their families. The district uses social media, e-mail, text messaging and its website. The district even has a school bus app that’s supposed to let parents know about transportation delays in real time.
Yet during Monday’s storm that dumped about a foot of snow on the city, too many parents were left wondering where their children were well after buses were supposed to drop them off. Some families didn’t know whether their children ever got on a bus, whether they were still safe and warm at school, or if their bus was stuck or in an accident. And in some cases, students didn’t make it home until almost midnight.
That’s a communication problem that must be fixed. With all the tracking and other information-relaying technology that’s available, St. Paul schools should strive to do a better job connecting with families in emergency situations.
The district can’t be blamed for the heavy afternoon snow or the terrible driving conditions the storm created. Anyone who tried to navigate Monday’s conditions knows that it caused hundreds of vehicles to get stuck, slowed traffic to a crawl and created serious delays.
But the barrage of social-media complaints from St. Paul parents revealed in real-time how difficult it was for parents to get information about their kids. Some checked the bus app, which turned out not be fully reliable. Others called the district office or their child’s school, but in some cases phones weren’t answered or they couldn’t get through.
Some families waited hours for the last of the stranded — 300 kids from preschool through eighth grade — to be bused home between 10 p.m. and midnight. One group of 11 kids from Wellstone Elementary on the North End had to get a ride from police officers. And according to a district official, nearly the last of those to be transported home were homeless or highly mobile students who receive rides to wherever they’re staying through a contract arrangement the district has with taxi companies.
To their credit, St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard and Mayor Melvin Carter held a news conference Tuesday to own up to the communications failure and apologize. Gothard said he and his team made the decision to keep schools open Monday based on information that indicated the district could get kids home safely. With hindsight, he added, “We likely would have made a different decision.”
There were 10 minor bus accidents, and 20 buses got stuck in snow, according to a schools spokesperson. As the situation worsened, district leaders asked the city for help. Carter helped shovel out buses at Farnsworth and Wellstone elementary schools, and the city dispatched plows to help where possible. At a number of schools, staff and neighbors helped stranded children by providing food and watching over them until they could get home safely.
At the news conference, Gothard and Carter thanked those who had pitched in and said they would work together to improve the response to weather events. Topping that to-do list should be upgrading the GPS bus tracking and driver communication systems to make them more user-friendly and accurate for school staff and families.
Forecasters had been uncertain about the impact of Monday’s storm on the Twin Cities, and the heavy snow hit at the worst time. Nevertheless, what happened to some schoolchildren and their families in St. Paul should never be repeated.