De Mendez gives details on storm response

Photo Courtesy of State of NJ
Gov. Phil Murphy, back center, pays a visit Nov. 16 to the Chit Chat Diner in West Orange the day after a massive snowstorm shut down northern New Jersey. The previous night, Chit Chat welcomed and fed approximately 80 students who had been stranded the entire afternoon and evening on school buses. ‘Thank you to the selfless staff of Chit Chat Diner in West Orange,’ Murphy said. ‘Chit Chat’s generosity is a powerful example of community coming together in a time of crisis.’

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education discussed the Nov. 15 snowstorm that wreaked havoc in town at its Nov. 20 meeting, with acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez explaining the decision not to call for an early dismissal, which resulted in many of the district’s students being stranded on buses for up to eight hours and in their school buildings overnight. And de Mendez said West Orange was not the only Essex County school district that chose not to dismiss early, as the storm turned out to be much more severe than originally predicted. Early predictions said the storm would deposit 1 to 3 inches of snow although 6 to 8 inches were received across northern New Jersey.

“At 9, we again looked at the weather forecast,” de Mendez said of the district’s procedure the evening of Nov. 14, the night before the storm. “We conferred, I conferred with my colleagues in the area, with the DPW and with Buildings and Grounds. The forecasts did not predict that we were going to get more than 1 to 3 inches of snow. Under normal circumstances, we would not close at 5” on the morning of Nov. 15. “Again, we checked at 5 and the weather forecast was still the same. Based on the information available, we did not feel that it warranted sending our students home early or putting our parents in a position to try to find child care midday.”

As the forecast shifted, de Mendez said that she and the administration made the decision to call for a “shelter in place,” in which students are held where they are without moving them.

“The forecast began to shift, but we thought that that would be a very difficult situation at that point,” she said. “Without the advance warnings or the predictions of the seriousness of this weather event, the unprecedented traffic patterns and the time, the traffic gridlock and the road closures all happening at the same time during dismissal — and the decision was made to shelter in place.”

De Mendez explained that Essex County will plow county roads if forecasts predict more than 3 inches of snow. Because less than that was predicted, West Orange’s county roads were not plowed. Later in the afternoon, there were several accidents on I-280 that shut down the highway and directed drivers to exits leading to West Orange.

“Buses had just dismissed, so our initial issue was not the snow,” de Mendez said. “Our initial issue was with the gridlock — our buses couldn’t move. Then the snow began and they were waiting again in the same gridlock.”

The West Orange High School buses left the school first, and did not get more than five or 10 minutes into their normal routes before the traffic gridlock left them unable to move. Students were left sitting on their bus for eight hours in some cases. The bus numbers affected by the storm were 314, 315, 316, 327, 347, 5, 29, 140, 141, 138 and 139. Eventually they were rerouted to the Chit Chat Diner on Eagle Rock Avenue, where business owner Gus Katsanos saw to it that the approximately 80 children were fed.

“We did have buses where students were on as long as eight hours,” de Mendez said. “They did not have access to a bathroom. They did not have access to food and it was a very difficult situation. And for that I am very sorry. I’m sorry that our students had to endure that. I’m sorry that they had to find themselves in very uncomfortable situations relieving themselves.”

There were 365 students who were left in the care of the district, according to de Mendez. Students stayed overnight at WOHS; Liberty, Edison and Roosevelt middle schools; Kelly, Mt. Pleasant and Redwood elementary schools; and the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center. Students were also rerouted from the buses to the West Orange Public Library, the district administration building and one of the town’s police precincts.

After explaining what happened during the storm, de Mendez made several recommendations to the BOE for measures she believes need to be put in place in the event of another similar storm. To formulate these measures, de Mendez said she and administrators had discussions with the transportation department; the Hunterdon County Educational Commission, which runs the district’s bus system; school leaders; students who were stranded; the West Orange Police Department; the West Orange Fire Department; the West Orange DPW; and Mayor Robert Parisi. De Mendez also said the district will have a meeting with school PTA groups in the beginning of December.

“If we’re looking at the evening before, by 9 p.m. based on the weather forecast, parents should prepare for the possibility of an early dismissal,” de Mendez said. “Please plan for child care in the event that we have to close school in the morning or the same day, which brings us to same-day dismissal. I still think we have to really carefully consider same-day dismissal and how late we’re willing to do that. I know some suggestions are saying 10, 11. Parents are responsible for their children, but I think that’s very difficult.”

She also addressed the county protocol for plowing roads and said that it will be taken into consideration in the event of another storm.

“What about our topography? West Orange is different. It’s not like the surrounding neighborhoods,” de Mendez said. “And in 1, 2 or 3 inches we would have been OK, even with our topography, but not with roads that are not plowed and not with roads that are not treated. Now that we know that the county has that protocol, the decision will be made with the idea and the knowledge of, ‘I cannot depend on those roads to be paved and I cannot depend on those roads to be treated.’”

De Mendez also said that a district Emergency Response Team should be formed, creating a clear chain of command to facilitate communication from the administrators in the central office to the principals of each school building. She wants to see school-based teams in which the members each have specific roles and responsibilities so that the events can be more clearly documented.

During the storm on Nov. 15, de Mendez said she and administrators were on conference calls with the WOPD and WOFD while trying to locate stranded buses so that first responders could reach students and relocate them. Because the buses do not have a live GPS system, the process of locating each one took 45 minutes to an hour. To keep track of which students were on each bus, the driver has to look at a roster. To solve these problems, de Mendez suggested installing an automatic vehicle location system to keep track of buses, and using technology to keep track of students on the buses.

“GPS really gives you direction from point A to point B,” de Mendez said. “But with the AVLs we can have a system set up that says where it is on a screen. Everybody can see it. That tells us where our buses are in instant, real time. For student identification, if we have the identification system, the student has an ID in the pocket of their book bag — they walk on the bus, swipe on and swipe off. That way we automatically know who the kids are on these buses.”

In addition, de Mendez wants to make sure that the WOPD and WOFD have access to those systems so that in the event of an emergency they can help the district while having the same information.

She also said that the district needs a larger pool of bus drivers. There is an eight-hour regulation for bus drivers, meaning that a driver is not permitted to return to work for another shift until after they have gotten eight hours of sleep. If a driver is on the road until 5 a.m., they cannot return to work for their usual route the next morning. De Mendez also would like to see emergency training for bus drivers so they know what to do in the case of a similar snowstorm or other weather event.

Other considerations that de Mendez touched on at the meeting included a mass alert system that would tell parents where their children are and could provide updates throughout the day, which would be more effective than robo calls, and making sure that school staff has access to the cafeteria so that students can eat while stranded at the school. She also mentioned having an emergency inventory of food in the event that it is needed, in addition to asking students who need medication to bring extra to school in case they aren’t able to get home and take that medication.

At the meeting, BOE members thanked district staff and the community members who provided food, in addition to providing suggestions of their own. Ken Alper said the calendar should be reconsidered in the future, in addition to short-term solutions.

“In the short term, is there a way to maybe embed someone from transportation with a walkie-talkie at OEM during an event like this so that there is a more direct line for the police to know where everything is?” Alper asked at the meeting. “I think we may need to seriously consider when we’re developing the next calendar if we need to start looking at having more snow days than we currently do.”

BOE member Sandra Mordecai asked about pricing for the technology that was suggested, and de Mendez said that she and Business Administrator John Calavano were looking into the cost. Mordecai said that emergency technology should be considered in next year’s budget.

Vice President Mark Robertson said he wants to see the website updated to reflect emergency statuses during an event like the Nov. 15 snowstorm, and also that it should be redesigned to be more easily viewed on a mobile device.

“The website is this central point of communication for our community,” he said at the meeting. “We live in a mobile society where most people are accessing the website from their phone or from an iPad and it’s not optimized for mobile. The way it renders, just to search for information is very difficult. I think that should be a very, very high priority, and not just that page but looking at the overall site because right now there is a good chance that people may not be able to access that page.”

BOE President Ron Charles said that, while introducing technology to assist the district in the event of an emergency is good, he wants to see a backup plan in case that technology doesn’t work or if school buildings lose power.

“When we talk about contingency plans, are we talking about communication to Facebook and communications on radios?” Charles said. “Yes, that’s good, but what is the backup if all the communications go down? We have to have a backup for the backup.”

De Mendez thanked the staff and teachers for their work in keeping the district students safe and cared for at the meeting.

“I just want to respectfully thank our staff,” de Mendez said. “They lean into their heart and they did what they needed to do because that’s what they always do. This circumstance would have been no different from another. They treat our children like their own. They made sure that they were cared for. They were not with their own families — somebody else was caring for their families in this event — but they were with your children, with our students and they took care of them with grace.”