Making "the" call; lots of factors behind the decision to delay or close school

Making "the" call; lots of factors behind the decision to delay or close school

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - It is her unfailingly upbeat voice that greets parents on students over the phone with news from the Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and often that means it is the most anticipated call of the day, especially when there is a chance for bad weather to disrupt a school schedule.

Rita Foil is the Public Information Officer with Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and that means she is in one of the most visible positions of anyone with the school system.

"The decision to close or delay school is one of the most difficult decisions any superintendent can make," Foil said.  "I am just her voice."

On Wednesday WBTV talked to Rita about how the decision is made to call off school or delay the start of classes.  The conversation is based on the fact that classes were originally under a two hour delay that had to be quickly changed to a three hour delay when road conditions deteriorated rapidly just after 6:00 am.

"Safety is always number one," Foil told WBTV.  "We have to look back and assess did our children arrive safely to school?  Did our staff arrive safely?  We have teenagers who drive to school in weather like this, we have to be concerned about that."

Foil says that the system dispatches drivers all over the county by 4:00 am to check bridges and roads, and report conditions back to Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody.  Moody and other staff members also rely on meteorologists with the National Weather Service and local forecasts.

On Wednesday morning things all looked good at 4:00 am, and it appeared the two hour delay was the right call, but then within a couple of hours, things changed.

Foil says one of the drivers who was checking the roads actually called in to say that he had just slid on an icy patch in a spot that just a short time earlier had been passable without any problem.

That's what led to the change in plans and also what kept emergency workers busy.

“It was pretty hectic out first thing this morning with numerous wrecks," said South Salisbury Fire Department Safety Officer Charles Guessford. "I think it was just the surprise of the people coming across the overpasses that they were as slick as they were.  We had, I think it was a total of three separate accidents in a span of about 45 minutes.”

Since the schools were already under a two hour delay, buses were not yet on the roads, but they would be soon, so Dr. Moody changed the delay to three hours.

“The three hour delay had to be made rather quickly this morning because the weather did turn on us quickly, had we not had that two hour delay we wouldn't have had that flexibility so it was a really good ting that we had in place to do that," Foil added. “It was absolutely the best decision we did.”

Foil quickly began texting local reporters and getting word of the new three hour delay out to parents. She used the Connect Ed system to make phone calls to parents, emailed radio and television stations, and relied on social media to get the word out quickly.

And while everything seemed to go smoothly on Wednesday, Foil know that there will still be some criticism of the decision.  That's what happened last week when Rowan-Salisbury was one of a very systems to not have a delay on a morning when the temperature was in single digits.

"It wasn't any warmer two hours later," Foil said.  "We stand by that decision."

In that case it the call was actually not made by Foil, but by Tim Beck, the RSS Transportation Director.  Beck contacted parents the night before through Connect Ed and the media to tell them that buses would be a little later than usual and that children should be kept inside warm homes or cars until the bus arrived.  That way, Foil explained, the students wouldn't standing outside at a bus stop; in sub freezing temperatures.

And while it is Dr. Moody who ultimately decides what will happen with schools on bad weather days, it is Rita's voice that relays the message. In recent years she's built up her own following on social media to the point that anytime there is a threat of bad weather impacting school schedules, her name pops up in posts and tweets as parents and students eagerly await to hear what she will have to say.