School system closed classrooms for two and a half days, but otherwise fared well during freeze

TOMMY COMEAUX tcomeaux@postsouth.com

Schools in Iberville Parish closed last Tuesday around noon due to the recent winter storm, but all but one reopened last Friday.

“Overall we did well, but a lot of the credit goes to Randy Morales, our supervisor of facilities and maintenance and his crew because we did have some problems,” said Superintendent Arthur Joffrion, Ph.D., Friday. “…Because of our maintenance staff and all of their hard work, we were able to open all of our schools but one today.”

“We obviously faced some issues,” he continued. “Our biggest concern was putting buses on the road, which is what led to the decision to have to close schools. We will always err on the side of caution.”

“It’s difficult to control normal size vehicle on icy roads, let alone a bus,” Joffrion said. “…With the freezing rain, the ice and snow, it was just not safe to put our buses on the road, which is why we decided to close.”

Only Crescent Elementary School remained closed last Friday, due to an issue with its heating system.

“At Crescent Elementary we had an issue with the boiler that required a part so we weren’t able to open that school along with the others,” Joffrion said. With the boiler out, a crucial part of the heating system, “we weren’t going to have an effective heating system.”

Some of the problems the School Board was faced with solving was a busted water line that runs to an old fieldhouse at White Castle High, he said.

Considering the size of the system and the number of schools and other buildings it is tasked with maintaining, the School Board fared well.

“At MSA-West, we had a busted sprinkler in a computer lab, of all places,” Joffrion said. While the water leak caused the loss of some equipment, the quick response of school personnel prevented the situation from being worse.

He said there was also a pipe that burst at Plaquemine High, another at MSA-East and another at the Operations Center but those problems were quickly resolved. “We were just on top of those issues.”

Joffrion said the decision to close schools midday Tuesday was based on the speed of the front causing the freezing rain, sleet and snow as moving across the state.

“We were closely monitoring the weather,” he said. “We work with the Office of Emergency Preparedness and its director, Laurie Doiron, and we also work with Sheriff Brett Stassi in making some of these decisions.

Those decisions were not easy ones to make, in part because of the state’s Department of Education’s requirement students receive “a certain number of instructional minutes, 63,720,” Joffrion said and the Iberville Parish school system was nearing its limit on the number of days schools could be closed.

Once again, the School Board’s policy of erring on the side of caution played a major role in the decision-making process.

“Our goal (last) Tuesday was to get the students in and at least get a half a day knowing we were probably going to have close Wednesday,” Joffrion said. “We were hoping to make it a full day Tuesday but because of the speed of that front, we couldn’t.”

“We were also hoping to be able to be back at school on Thursday (Jan. 18) but again, the condition of the roads was just where we felt we could put the buses on them,” he continued. “We knew that the temperatures yesterday (last Thursday) would rise enough where the majority of the ice would melt.”

To be certain schools were ready for students after the rare hard freeze, Joffrion said principals and custodial staff went to each campus had no other issues.

Further precautions were taken last Friday prior to the schools reopening, he said, including roping off areas that were icy to prevent slips and falls.

While the School Board builds in several extra days of instruction to prepare for the inevitable days schools will have to close because of hurricanes and other severe weather conditions, any further weather issues will mean extra days will have to be added, Joffrion said.

“We have now used those extra days with a flood, the threat of a hurricane and snow days so we are now down to a point where if anything else happens that causes us to miss days, they will have to be made up,” he continued.

Joffrion said the school system used an automated phone system to notify parents of school closures and used the power of the local television stations, its own website and social media – Facebook and Twitter – to spread the word.

He said he realized the dilemma closing schools would cause parents since most, if not all, daycare centers were closed as well, forcing parents to miss work themselves or depend on family to help out.

“Our priority has to be to our students,” Joffrion said. “I’m certain that it was an inconvenience to parents, but our children’s safety has to come first.”