At 2:30 pm on Wednesday, May 22, the weather emergency alarm in superintendent Patrick McGrath's office began beeping and a voice announced that the National Weather Service had placed our area under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning with the prediction of strong winds and significant cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the Glenville and Burnt Hills area.
Simultaneously, the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville called the district office to inform BH-BL that the base was in shelter-in-place status "based on a confirmed tornado warning."
Although the National Weather Service warning had said nothing about a tornado warning, the decision for Mr. McGrath was very easy. "Realizing that students were just about to walk outdoors into this, we wanted to err on the side of caution, and I immediately initiated shelter-in-place procedures in all our schools," he says.
Doing this at 2:30, when some students are already aboard buses on their way home and others are waiting to board, is no easy task. A flurry of phone calls and emails ensued, first to get the word out to all five schools to stop buses from leaving and bring students indoors, then to get the word out to parents that the buses would be late.
In each school, students were moved to interior hallways and other interior spaces previously identified by experts as the safest. Some secondary pupils who had already boarded buses returned to the schools so that they could wait in safety until the storm passed. The shelter-in-place status was lifted at 3:10 pm, and buses began moving again.
An announcement about the emergency and the bus delay was posted on the district website, and a School News Notifier email alert was sent to all users of the SNN system. However, the need to send a SNN cell phone text message was accidentally overlooked.
The delay in sending secondary pupils home caused a cascade effect, delaying the usual arrival time of elementary buses, and then delaying activity buses, in some cases by as much as an hour.
"I recognize that any changes to our complex schedule will have an effect on thousands of families, but my first responsibility is always to keep the children safe," says McGrath. "We're told this storm dropped roughly an inch of rain on Glenville and Burnt Hills in only a half-hour, which is intense and almost unheard of -- not a time when we would want our buses on the roads if we can help it. There were also many reports of lighting strikes in our area. Many parents have already written or called to say they appreciated our response."
While all students were kept safe, the short-lived emergency highlighted a few areas where more staff training is needed and where district policies need to be reviewed. McGrath plans, for example, to review the timeliness of BH-BL SNN messaging and the number of staff who are trained to post SNN messages. The district will also review school procedures on the use of student cell phones during an emergency.
"When winter storms are forecast, you usually have at least a day to plan and get ready," McGrath notes. "This was very different, very sudden, and an excellent test of our procedures. In most cases, the schools came through with flying colors, but I will be discussing what we learned and can improve upon with the district Health and Safety Committee and the new district director of safety and security, Mr. Poitier."