On a typical day, Jimmy Appelhanz’s work starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. He’s a radio operator helping support the people who drive yellow buses for Portland Public Schools.
“I am one of three radio operators that take all the incoming calls and receive messages and send out messages that are pertinent to routes getting finished or covered, or helping in the field,” Appelhanz said.
On Wednesday, he didn’t clock out until 11:20 p.m.
That’s because school bus drivers across Portland were dealing with record snowfall, carrying students home in weather that only got worse as the evening wore on, causing traffic jams and long commute times for people across the region. The snow this week closed schools and many businesses for two days as freezing temperatures kept road conditions icy. This radio operator says under such treacherous conditions, tire chains and defensive driving tactics can help — but a critical, missing step would’ve been to simply send students home earlier.
Appelhanz represents PPS special needs school bus drivers as part of the executive board for Amalgamated Transit Union 757, the union that represents school district bus drivers as well as TriMet operators.
On Wednesday, Appelhanz was assigned to help with “general transit,” helping PPS bus drivers get students between school and home, as the snow closed main streets and whole stretches of highways.
“We were just having to reroute people all over the place, and yeah, it was a mess,” Appelhanz said.
“One of our coworkers was stranded on the highway until 12:45 [a.m.], when they were picked up by a family member.”
The weather led to transportation problems throughout the city. Some students and staff spent hours waiting for TriMet buses, and The Oregonian and KGW reported buses stuck in the snow and students getting home late in the evening.
Before school in Portland let out Wednesday, officials sent out a message to families, encouraging them to pick up their children and letting families know that buses would be on snow routes.
But, Appelhanz said, snow routes aren’t always helpful.
“Portland historically doesn’t really have this much snow, so I think we know by now, that if we do get this much snow, it’s going to be a nightmare,” Appelhanz said.
Appelhanz said Wednesday’s weather was reminiscent of 2016 when another historic snowstorm hit Portland and the whole state. He said the district should’ve ended school early on Wednesday to allow students and staff to get home before the weather got too bad.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t call the two-hour early out,” Appelhanz said. “This happened in 2016, I was driving around at that point, I didn’t get back to the yard until 11 p.m. that night. It’s kind of the same scenario.”
He said he understands the importance of instructional time requirements for Oregon students, but said the early release could have meant a safer, earlier return home for everyone leaving school.
“A decision like that could’ve meant that students and my coworkers were not put in danger, and not sitting on buses for eight-plus hours.”
PPS Director of Media Relations Valerie Feder said they “considered everything,” including a two-hour early release. She said administrators used the district’s decision considerations — including the safety of students, areas impacted by the event, and the transportation department’s ability to respond effectively, in addition to meteorological information, in deciding not to end school early. At least two nearby school districts, Centennial and Gresham-Barlow, released students early due to weather.
Portland, like most other districts in the region, closed school Thursday and Friday. PPS shared a statement Thursday morning that expressed gratitude to “the educators, school leaders, staff, community partners, and families across our system who ensured all of our students arrived home safely last night.”
“The safety and well-being of our students and staff is our primary concern, and we won’t waiver in that commitment,” district leaders said in the statement.
The district has three makeup days reserved at the end of the year — from June 14 through 16. So far the district has closed for two days due to inclement weather, and district leaders will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to use the makeup days and extend the school year.
When it comes to safety, Appelhanz said PPS drivers have tools they used to get students home Wednesday night, including chains on their tires, defensive driving training and the ability to reroute to areas that may not be as affected by snow.
But that doesn’t account for all of the other vehicles on the road that may not have those same tools. Appelhanz recalled hearing of two accidents when he was on the job Wednesday, monitoring the general transit channel. He said both involved other vehicles hitting school buses.
“For the most part, it’s not about the buses slipping around and not being able to get through,” Appelhanz said. “Almost all of the buses had chains on them. It’s a matter of the highway closing down because everyone else on the road is slipping and crashing.”