With snowy weather rolling in, Salem school officials shifted from pause to closed

For more than an hour well before dawn on Tuesday, T.J. Crockett prowled south Salem streets to check conditions for school.

He left his home at 3 a.m., coordinating with three others around the Salem-Keizer School District to assess roads. They were on the front lines to judge whether 40,000 kids should go to school.

In the next three hours, conditions in Salem deteriorated quickly and top officials made the final call: Close the schools.

As the threat passed through the morning, the temperature climbed well above freezing and Salem’s streets were bare.

For Superintendent Christy Perry, that call to close is the “trickiest of decisions” and she stayed personally involved through the morning.

Later in the day, Perry, Crockett and Bob Silva, the district’s chief operating officer, described the morning’s events in an interview with Salem Reporter.

“If people had a chance to ride along with us, they would understand,” Perry said.

Overnight the National Weather Service had issued a winter storm watch for Salem, indicating there could be snow above 500 feet.

With that forecast in mind, Crockett and his team set out early – two to the hills of west Salem, two to south Salem.

“We’re looking for snow, tracking the weather,” said Crockett, the district’s director of transportation services.

Before the pandemic, the route-checkers would head to the office to compare notes. But virtual meetings are the norm now, with Crockett convening a 4:15 a.m. session Tuesday while parked at Crossler Middle School.

The team reported in to consider the options.

“In the middle of making the recommendation, the National Weather Service changed its outlook to a winter storm warning,” Crockett said.

On cue, conditions worsened and snow started falling around Salem.

In a virtual meeting 30 minutes later, Perry and Silva joined in. When weather conditions are unsettled and the call on the school day is going to be tough, “for me, personally, I’ve got to hear from everyone,” Perry said.

At 5:15 a.m., Perry endorsed the recommendation to delay school by two hours.

“I was looking at the National Weather Service and hearing what people were saying about what they were seeing,” said Perry. She had an inch of snow already at her home.

Five school bus drivers had already arrived for duty before the two-hour delay notice went out to all drivers who staff the district’s 242 routes.

Normally, buses would begin dropping students off at elementary schools by 7:30 a.m.

The school district’s automated system was put into play to report the delay, notifying school district employees at 5:30 a.m., parents at 5:45 a.m. and high school students via StudentSquare at 6 a.m.

With school on pause, more school officials moved out for on-the-road scouting. Areas that had been dry were now seeing snowfall.

“We were just getting snow everywhere,” Crockett said.

 Even pushing school start times forward two hours didn’t assure that conditions would improve in time to get students safely to school.

Perry and her transportation team gathered again at 6:15 a.m. to assess conditions.

“They were decidedly getting worse,” Crockett said.

The team considered the options before deciding “closure was the best thing,” Crockett said.

Perry, Crockett and their team may face such choices again in the coming days. The National Weather Service is forecasting continued chances of snow, mostly at higher elevations around Salem.

But Tuesday’s day off means the district is burning through its allowance of days off before the school year has to be extended.

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].

SUBSCRIBE TO GET SALEM NEWS We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.