January 6, 2014

Wichita students wait for, board buses in bone-chilling weather

Wichita students returned to class Monday despite single-digit temperatures and subzero wind chills, but not everyone was happy about the district’s decision to have school in session.

Wichita students returned to class Monday despite single-digit temperatures and subzero wind chills, but not everyone was happy about the district’s decision to have school in session.

“I think it’s stupid. If they say it’s too cold for animals outside, they shouldn’t expect kids to be out there,” said Christi Hobbs, whose daughter attends Heights High School in Wichita.

Hobbs said her daughter waited 40 minutes for a bus Monday morning before returning home. At 7:15 a.m., the temperature in Wichita was 1 degree below zero, and the wind chill was 19 below, according to the National Weather Service.

When Hobbs called the school from work to report her daughter absent, she was told the absence would be unexcused, because school was in session.

“I don’t understand that,” Hobbs said. “She doesn’t drive, and I have no way to get her there. … Forty minutes is too long to wait in this weather.”

School officials said Sunday that administrators weighed several factors before deciding to resume classes Monday, including road conditions, wind chill forecasts and whether school parking lots and bus lanes were cleared.

Most school districts in the Wichita area that were scheduled to resume classes on Monday did so, including Valley Center, Andover and Wichita Catholic schools. Some others in Kansas, including Lawrence and the Johnson County district near Kansas City, Kan., canceled school because of inclement weather.

Bill Faflick, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said the majority of buses were on time to Wichita schools Monday morning.

“But one late bus is one too many, and we understand that,” he said.

Wichita schools spokeswoman Susan Arensman said school officials followed a district policy on absences, which does not list weather as a valid excuse.

“While we understand some parents made the choice to keep their child at home, the majority of our students were in school today,” Arensman wrote in an e-mail.

Faflick said attendance was just over 80 percent Monday, lower than average for the district but not surprising for a day after break during cold and flu season.

“We always learn from every one of these decisions, and that will be the case again with this one,” he said Monday afternoon. “I think we feel pretty good that the district was in good shape to hold school and get students back to classes.”

Kolin Anglin, whose daughter attends Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary, said the bus was 30 minutes late before the family called to check its whereabouts. An official with First Student, the district’s bus contractor, told them the bus was running behind and would not likely start its Earhart route for another 45 minutes, he said.

Anglin’s wife, Andrea, ended up driving the fourth-grader to school.

“If I wasn’t blessed with a vehicle and a job that understands when I need to take her to school, she would have been outside for over an hour” in wind chills of 16 below, Andrea Anglin said.

“I pray no child gets sick or frostbite because of this,” her husband said. “It’s one thing to have possible delays, but 90 minutes late is ridiculous if there isn’t some sort of notice out to parents to make arrangements.”

John Le said he drove his 5-year-old niece, Mai Trinh, to school at Washington Elementary as usual on Monday, then walked with her the two blocks from his car to the entrance. The kindergartner wore a pink coat and hood, boots, mittens and a scarf as she stomped up to the school entrance, a Dora the Explorer backpack slung over her shoulders.

“It’s not too bad, as long as you dress for it,” Le said. “I don’t mind that they had school.”

Jamie Glisar disagreed. She said she kept her daughter, a kindergartner, home from Enterprise Elementary on Monday because she didn’t want her and a younger child waiting in the cold for the bus. Glisar said she usually walks her daughter to the bus stop several blocks away and has to take her 2-year-old along.

“We usually wait down there about 10 or 15 minutes on a normal day,” she said. “When I saw the weather this morning, I decided to keep her home.”

Glisar, too, was surprised to learn that her daughter’s absence would not be excused. Faflick said unexcused absences primarily affect students more at high schools that exempt students from final exams if they miss fewer than five days a semester.

“I’m rather upset. My daughter has good attendance,” Glisar said. “It’s their decision to open, but it’s my decision as a parent to keep her home and warm.”

Jeff Davis, president of the Wichita school board, said he supported the district’s call.

“We have people in place in the district that make those decisions, so if they think it’s the best thing to have school, then that’s what I agree with,” Davis said. “That’s what they’re in those positions for.”

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