During last February’s snowstorm, Seattle Public Schools buses left many children stranded, including students with disabilities — potentially violating federal law.
This year, district officials say they’re better prepared, applying lessons learned. They say they’re working more closely with the city and automatically enrolling all families who rely on buses on snow routes before any snow hits next week.
“We’ve developed and vetted a plan that is clear, concise, comprehensive, and coordinated,” SPS spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email. “We have developed a robust snow response plan that includes overnight street condition assessments, conference calls with SDOT and our transportation providers.”
Last year, to get service when snow routes were in effect, the district required families receiving special-education services to opt in by filling out a form in the fall. Many said they weren’t aware of that requirement, and assumed the district would provide service the same way it did for general-education students.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities have a specific federal right to a “free and appropriate public education” — and that right includes getting them to school.
Parents’ concerns about last year were confirmed in an early 2019 transportation audit, commissioned by SPS, which said students with disabilities “receive reduced or no service on some inclement weather (snow) days.” At the time, the district said it needed additional staffing for “upcoming expectations of snow routes.”
This year, instead of the opt-in system, all students SPS regularly buses to school will be automatically assigned a snow route. That’s because, as Robinson wrote, “we concluded that our old method … was not an effective way to provide service to all families.”
The other lesson from last year was the importance of more frequent communication with parents and students.
Snow that sticks would add to the district’s recent, acute problems transporting students to school, even on perfectly clear days. A Seattle Times investigation found that in the past few years, nearly 5,000 rides never showed up or were more than an hour late. This school year started off a tad more smoothly.
Forecasters expect an arctic front to hit Western Washington over the coming week.
If the weather becomes a problem, the district has three options: Delay the start of school by two hours and put buses on snow routes; release students early if weather conditions deteriorate during the school day; or declare a snow day and cancel school.
The district sent families a letter Dec. 12 regarding the new plan. About 1,800 letters were held back because some bad information about the routes was included. Those letters were corrected and were mailed out Friday.
Like many Seattle Public Schools families, the McBrides — who live in the Maple Leaf neighborhood — found themselves in a bind when snow blanketed the city last February and SPS canceled school for five days. Susan and Tim McBride both work on First Hill and are managers who have to be at work, even when the weather keeps others home. They don’t have family close enough to help on short notice with their 6-year-old twins and 8-year-old, who all attend Hazel Wolf K-8 in North Seattle.
So they stagger their work and home duties. “We have this dance we do that a lot of parents do, where one goes in earlier and one goes in later,” Tim McBride said.
If school is canceled next week, they will do what they did last year. Susan McBride will go to work at 5:30 a.m. and Tim will stay home. When she returns from work in the early afternoon, Tim will give Su a “high-five” as he heads out the door to their Subaru. He’ll likely work until midnight.
“The situation holds you hostage,” he said.
The district’s website has more information regarding winter weather and its various impacts on schools and students, such as how to prepare for the weather, where to find out if school has been delayed or canceled, safety tips and child care providers. Local TV and radio stations also carry those notices.
During last year’s snowstorm, there was a day when school was open but delayed, and 39 school bus routes were down in the morning or afternoon. In addition to the bus routes that were down, eight other routes were delayed by up to an hour in the morning.
Of the district’s roughly 53,000 students, 22,000 rely on SPS buses. Some students in option schools or other special programs are sometimes eligible for busing. Otherwise, students are eligible for Orca cards. Students who use King County Metro buses can track route changes on Metro’s snow guide.