Surprise snowstorm strands many at schools, classes canceled Wednesday, Thursday
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Jan 28, 2014 | 5552 views |  0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A school bus turns off Alabama Highway 21 south of Piedmont in a heavy snow shower Tuesday morning.  (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
A school bus turns off Alabama Highway 21 south of Piedmont in a heavy snow shower Tuesday morning. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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Students and staffers at schools throughout the county found themselves stranded on campus today due to worsening road conditions as snow continued to fall in the area.

Most schools in the county planned to dismiss students two hours early today, but as snowfall exceeded expectations, many began releasing students around 11 a.m. Buses in many places, however, were unable to travel on the snow-covered roads. City governments announced that many roads were officially closed.

The Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency announced that Calhoun County, Anniston, Oxford, Piedmont and Jacksonville public schools will be closed Wednesday and Thursday, as well as the Donoho School, Faith Christian School, Jacksonville Christian Academy and Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School. All after-school activities will also be cancelled.

Calhoun County’s schools weren’t alone in the problem. In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Robert Bentley said state officials were preparing to the possibility that students in some schools would have to remain there overnight. Those students, he said, would be fed and cared for.

“If you trust your teacher to take care of your child today, they will be taken care of tonight,”

Bentley said state officials did not know the total number of students stranded in schools, or the total number of schools with stranded students. A spokeswoman for Bentley confirmed that several schools in Shelby County had stranded students, as did Winterboro School in Talladega County.

Winterboro Principal Michelle Head said Tuesday afternoon that only four children remained at the school. Most were stranded because parents couldn’t reach them due to road conditions, she said. Head said five school staffers were also at the school. She said she was “optimistic” that students wouldn’t have to stay all night.

Roy Bennett, student support coordinator for Oxford City Schools, said “well less than half” of the system’s students were still at school just before 1 p.m., almost two hours after students were initially dismissed.

“We couldn’t get the buses on the road before the conditions became worse,” Bennett said. “So the students are here, we’re with them, they’re safe and warm.”

Bennett said parents were continuing to pick up students at the schools, and when conditions improve, buses will get back on the roads.

Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent for Jacksonville City Schools, said about 200 students were still at the city’s schools after 1 p.m., most of whom were stranded because buses were unable to get on the roads.

Campbell said “there’s no way of knowing” how long students might remain at the schools, but said lunch was provided for the students, and school staff have remained at the schools.

“The important thing is the students are safe and warm,” Campbell said.

About 10 or so students at Piedmont City Schools rode home Tuesday inside former military Humvees, said Matt Akin, superintendent. Parents who made it to the schools to get their children found themselves driving on increasingly dangerous roads as the snow continued to fall into the afternoon.

Piedmont police officers drove the department's two Humvees through the snow to safely get those students home, Akin said.

"We were all clear by 1:30," Akin said.

Many parents were unable to get their students at school because of the road conditions. Angela Irby, a grandmother of an Anniston High School student, said she was frustrated by the decision from the school not to release students until 11 a.m., making it impossible for her to pick up her grandson from her home in Blue Mountain.

"They're the ones responsible for our kids while they're in school," said Irby, who at 3:30 p.m. still hadn't been able to get in touch with her grandson. "They needed to be thinking."

Joe Dyar, superintendent for Calhoun County Schools said as of 3:30 p.m., approximately 500 students and 150 staff members including principals were still at the 17 county schools. Dyar said he and his staff were prepared to keep students overnight should the road conditions not improve.

"We have plenty of water, warmth and food for these students," said Dyar, who noted all the schools had opened gymnasiums for students. "We're prepared to stay until the last student and last staffer make it home safe."

Mark Proper, principal of Pleasant Valley High School, said 15 students were still on campus around 2 p.m., but said all were expected to be picked up in the next half-hour. The students were fed lunch, and were playing computer games while waiting for rides.

Bobby Tittle, principal of Ohatchee High School, said the school opened the lunchroom for students to get food, and made sure nursing staff remained on campus in case of an emergency. As of 2 p.m., just five students remained at Ohatchee High School.

The National Weather Service in Calera issued a winter storm warning throughout the state until 6 a.m. Wednesday. Areas throughout the central and eastern part of the state could see up to 3 inches of snow, with areas along Interstate 20 and Interstate 59 expected to be hit the hardest.

Staff Writers Tim Lockette and Eddie Burkhater contributed reporting for this story.

Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.
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