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Durham schools on holding class amid flooding, tornado warning: ‘We made the best decision we could’

September 17, 2018

While apologizing for the inconvenience and potential danger to students and staff, Durham Public Schools officials defended the decision to hold classes Monday as flooding from Hurricane Florence intensified across the Triangle.

“Although we made the best decision we could with the information we had this morning, we are sorry to our families and staff for the difficulties that came from our decision to open school,” school district spokesman Chip Sudderth said in an emailed statement Monday morning.

Florence, which has been downgraded to a tropical depression, dumped several inches of rain across the Triangle on Sunday and early Monday as it headed north and finally out of the state.

Durham County deputies and Durham police reported flooding on numerous area roads Monday morning, including near the Eno River, and several drivers had to be rescued from stalled cars. The National Weather Service also issued a tornado warning for Durham County at 8:15 a.m., noting a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was over the city.

Several area school districts, including Wake County, decided to cancel classes for a third day because of the ongoing inclement weather – Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools first delayed school for two hours but by 7 a.m. Monday decided to cancel – but DPS announced Sunday that students would return to class Monday.

“Durham Public Schools was in contact with city/county Emergency Management yesterday and reviewing weather/road conditions since 3:30 a.m. today,” Sudderth said in an email shortly after 8:30 a.m. “We had every indication that this was a good day to open school. When weather advisories were issued and conditions began to deteriorate, buses were already en route to school. In such situations, it is generally safer for our buses to bypass flooded roads and bring students to safety at our schools, which are secure facilities. We are continuing to monitor and respond to this morning’s weather conditions.”

A half-hour later, he issued a follow-up email: “We are continuing to assess weather conditions and road safety. Any student absences today will be excused. Students that have arrived at our schools are safe and sound.”

Parents weren’t calmed by those reassurances.

“I’m really disappointed in Durham Public Schools,” Tammie Elkerson-Mcgill posted on the district’s Facebook page. “One day of not missing school is not worth the safety of so many children that have to ride the buses home on flooded roadways. Please Do Better In The Future.”

“Should have just cancelled in the beginning,” Ariel Bivens agreed.

Sudderth issued a third statement shortly after 10:30 a.m.

“We have consulted with city/county Emergency Management. We anticipate that flooded roads will subside during the afternoon and plan to complete the school day on the regular schedule. Our Transportation Department will route our buses around any remaining impassable roads,” he said. “We appreciate all DPS teachers and staff, especially bus drivers, for helping to keep our students safe, and are directing our principals and supervisors to work with staff who were unable to come to work today.”

All after-school extracurricular activities and child care for the district were canceled for Monday night, and Middle College High School was let out at noon because Durham Technical Community College was closing early for the day, Sudderth added.

“So only middle college gets an early release?” parent Krysta Sjogren asked on Facebook. “What about the rains predicted for right around dismissal time? My child is getting his own early release today.”

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