PERRY COUNTY — This year’s first significant blast of winter weather struck Perry County on Thursday, blanketing the mountains with just enough snow and ice to make traveling treacherous. The timing of the precipitation created chaos, not only for commuters, but also for school bus drivers in the Perry County School District, who assumed the tedious task of safely delivering students home on the slick roads that weave through our hills and hollows.
Most of the bus drivers completed their runs without incident. However, a few buses in the fleet experienced difficulty during the downpour and suddenly found themselves immobile. No students were harmed.
One bus got stuck along Hwy. 28, on the mountain that descends toward Chavies en route from Buckhorn School. The Hazard Herald also received reports of school buses that were stranded in Lower Second Creek and Lost Creek. There might have been more that were not reported to us.
Snow began falling shortly before 9:00 a.m., at which time, Central Office announced early closure for Perry County Schools, officially set at 9:45. Several parents throughout the district question why school was open at all on Thursday, considering the Hazard Independent School District closed for the entire day and snow accumulation was inevitable according to most meteorologists.
Perry County Schools Superintendent Jonathan Jett offered an explanation for the decision to not cancel school in a statement he delivered Thursday evening.
“I want to apologize to the students, staff and parents of Perry County for having school today,” Jett said, “I had a conversation with the National Weather Service at 5:00 a.m. this morning and they stated we would not see any snow until after 1:00 today. I thought we could get in half of a day of instruction and get everyone home safely before the snow arrived. Obviously that was not the case and I take responsibility for the decision I made to have school. Having said that, I am so thankful for everyone that made sure all of our students made it home safely. It was truly a joint effort from several groups of people including parents, teachers, staff, principals, central office staff, sheriff’s department, city police, state police, fiscal court, and state, city and county road crews. But most importantly the credit needs to go to our transportation department, bus drivers and monitors. They really are the best. Once again, I apologize and I am so thankful that everyone made it home safely.”
Central Office staff was busy during Thursday’s snowfall, not only monitoring buses to make sure they were safe, but also responding to buses that were stuck to help deliver the students on board home safely. Jonathan Jett was one of the Central Office staff members, who headed out to assist bus drivers that morning.
Lower Second Creek was one of Jett’s destinations. Bryan Miniard, a student at Perry County Central, rides the Lower Second Creek bus to and from school each day. Jett picked Miniard up at the point where the bus parked and drove him the rest of the way home.
“We were okay,” Miniard said of the students on the bus, “I didn’t worry about us high school students. I just wanted to make sure all the little ones were taken care of. Mr. Jett came over there to get us. He drove really good on the road; seemed to know what he was doing.”
When school remains in session on days the weather forecast calls for wintry conditions, some parents elect to keep their kids at home. Such was the situation on Thursday. However, a majority of parents chose to send their kids to school that day, with many of them blaming the same source as Superintendent Jett for their decision.
On Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service released the following advisory for Perry County: “THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN JACKSON HAS ISSUED A WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY FOR SNOW… WHICH IS IN EFFECT FROM NOON THURSDAY TO 8:00 A.M. EST FRIDAY. EXPECT SNOW TO DEVELOP BETWEEN NOON AND 2:00 P.M. EST THURSDAY AND THEN DIMINISH AROUND 8:00 A.M FRIDAY. TOTAL SNOW ACCUMULATIONS OF UP TO 2 INCHES ARE EXPECTED.”
For the most part, weather forecasters throughout the state echoed the National Weather Service’s prediction of snow that was set to start falling in Eastern Kentucky sometime Thursday afternoon instead of Thursday morning. But before flags of protest toward the National Weather Service begin waving, everyone should keep in mind that the National Weather Service constantly cautions the public to refrain from using predicted times for weather events as a trusted planning guide. NWS never presents predicted times for major weather events as scientific truth. In fact, meteorologists say the opposite about time of day estimations. Numerous factors can influence a weather pattern at any given time, especially in a wild weather state like Kentucky.
As it turned out, most weather forecasters were right about everything they predicted for Thursday, with the exception of the start time. The snow started sticking Thursday morning instead of Thursday afternoon and those few hours made a huge difference for Perry County Schools.
On the morning of Jan. 5, Perry County was not the only school district in session. Knott County Schools faced the same situation as Perry County. Jeremy Patrick, a bus driver with Knott County Schools, commented Thursday afternoon about the conditions he faced during his run,
“It was nerve racking and I’d rather not do it again. Most buses were grounded and couldn’t get up in the hollers. We just happened to leave about 25 minutes before the others or we would have been too. We had a hard enough time maneuvering as it was.”
Transporting students home during a surprise snow squall is nothing new to Perry County Schools. Similar circumstances occur on an almost yearly basis. Each time this happens the potential for disaster exists. But so far, bus drivers have succeeded in preventing harm for the students. In the past, Perry County Schools have also closed for an entire day because of forecasts that predicted snow, which never fell.
Thursday morning served as a warning of the dangers winter weather can present for kids in our schools because of the snow storm’s much earlier than anticipated arrival and the turmoil caused by the slick roads. Throughout the East Kentucky region as a whole, multiple wrecks were reported during the storm, with some of them resulting in fatalities. In Hazard, a major section of Hwy. 15 was closed because of the storm, causing heavy traffic delays near the hospital. The storm also left a few school buses momentarily stranded.
However, the most important news to report from Perry County’s battle against the storm is the fact that all students and staff in the Perry County School District made it home safely.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.