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East Tennessee school systems watching snow days diminish

Lydia X. McCoy, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Updated Jan 31, 2014 at 9:40 AM

(MCT) – Sevier County students have spent as much time out of the classroom as they have in it since returning from Christmas break because of winter weather.

The school system has built 13 snow days into the calendar. But with classes out again today, they have now used 10 of those days, and students could find themselves in the classroom during a scheduled winter break, spring break or even in the summer.

"All of our days are due to inclement weather. Since Christmas, we have eight lost days in this semester," said Debra Cline, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, of the snow days used. "But the most important is doing what's in the best interest of our students and ensuring we do all we can do to format the rest of the instructional time. We will adjust (the calendar) as we feel appropriate."

Many East Tennessee school systems are watching their snow days quickly diminish in just the first six weeks of winter.

But school officials said they'd rather use the days than risk student safety.

"Superintendents never win," said Larry Foster, director of schools for Anderson County Schools, which has used all five of its snow days as of today. "I try to make decisions for what is right for children and what is safe for our children. And cold has been an issue in our setting this year."

Across the area, superintendents and staff from transportation and maintenance departments took to the roads to check the conditions. In some districts, buses were even run to check routes.

Jason Vance, director of Loudon County Schools, was among them. Throughout the day on Thursday, members of his staff sent him pictures of roads that were still covered in snow. He even received a note from a concerned parent showing what the roads looked like in her neighborhood. As a result, Loudon County Schools is not in session today.

"Whenever we have inclement weather where snow actually accumulates on the ground and roads, we've got a couple folks, my transportation director and I, (who) will drive roads and see what the roads look like," he said.

"Our main roads weren't in terrible shape on Wednesday, but we had a significant number of side roads that were impassable. The sunshine came up (Wednesday) and dried up quite a few places, but still we had trees that overshadowed the roads. I'm hopeful the sun will come out again (Thursday) to help assist us dry those up."

Vance said another area of concern for him was that a couple of schools have hilly driveways. When classes were released early Tuesday, those schools also saw minor accidents, he said.

The superintendent even sneaked in a little fun on Wednesday -- while he was checking road conditions, he came across some students sledding.

"I just saw a lot of kids sledding and I had my kids with me, and at one point in time we actually got out and enjoyed some of the sledding hills with some of the kids," he said. "That was a lot of fun."

Today will be Loudon County's fifth snow day out of 11 days built into its school calendar.

"We typically have not used this many this early in the calendar in years past," he said.

Vance said his district might be in a little better shape than other districts in terms of number of days left, but winter is just starting.

"I'm concerned because I'm afraid that this has the potential to be a harsh winter season for us," he said. "But I think we're safe now compared to many other folks. The fear is there could be more harsh weather on the way."

Today marks Blount County Schools' eighth snow day used, leaving the district with just one more.

Betsy Cunningham, the district's spokeswoman, said officials are not concerned about only having one day left.

"We will come up with a plan, and we will cross that bridge when we get to it," she said.

Cunningham said they have about a half-dozen "spotters" throughout the county who report back to the superintendent about road conditions during inclement weather. Those reports, plus conversations with law enforcement and other county officials and weather reports, help school officials make decisions about whether to close for weather.

"It's really feet on the ground," she said. "We cover about 335 miles with our buses. That's significant mileage, so we try to assess all areas (of the county)."

Knox County Schools is also closed today "due to challenging conditions that still exist on many back roads, as well as some subdivisions," spokeswoman Melissa Ogden said in a statement to parents Thursday night.

That brings the district's number of snow days used to five, leaving it with three.

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