Record levels of snowfall overwhelmed Portland and the surrounding region Wednesday night and led to traffic jams and long delays for students and staff struggling to get home. Schools closed across much of Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington Thursday.
With no sign of a thaw, Friday closures are already starting.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, school districts and educational institutions across the region had started making decisions about school Friday, citing the snow and freezing temperatures. Portland Public Schools, Gresham-Barlow, Port Orford, St. Helens School District, as well as Evergreen and Vancouver districts in Washington all announced continued district-wide closures Friday. Portland Community College, Pacific University and Mt. Hood Community College also announced a continued closure for Friday.
At least two private schools, Westside Christian and Central Catholic, will also remain closed, but said they will transition to remote learning for Friday.
Heavy snow upends Portland schools — and education secretary’s visit
The school closures began Wednesday with early releases and canceled after-school activities across Portland with snow beginning to accumulate. One bus of student-athletes from the Beaverton School District was at the Moda Center, but the students and their coach took the MAX to the Beaverton transit center, where district officials say there was a bus waiting for students.
A couple of Beaverton school buses also faced issues. Officials say one bus from Cedar Park Middle School with “about 7 kids total” had to stop at West Tualatin View Elementary School, where parents picked their children up.
Kids were home by 6 p.m., according to district officials.
Another bus full of students started to slide, and the driver was unable to put chains on the tires. District officials say the driver left the bus, and it’ll stay put until the snow melts. Meantime, parents had to go out into the storm to pick up their kids.
A number of school communities in Portland faced transportation problems as the snow piled up on city streets - and not just in the K-12 system. Faculty and students at Portland Community College say a late notice of canceled classes caused frustration and hardships for anyone trying to leave campus and get home.
Portland Public Schools officials didn’t respond to OPB’s calls Wednesday afternoon and evening and released a statement Thursday morning responding to weather-related issues and the decision to close schools.
“PPS extends our sincere 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 statement said. “We are continuing to assess road conditions to determine when our schools will be able to safely reopen.”
Before the end of the school day Wednesday, PPS officials shared a message with families warning of the winter weather.
“School will end at the normally scheduled time but, due to the inclement weather, all after-school and evening activities are canceled,” the message read. “Buses will be on snow routes. Families are encouraged to pick up their students as early as possible.”
The message led to confusion, and slightly differed from a text message sent to families that did not include the line encouraging families to pick up their children “as early as possible.”
After school Wednesday, McDaniel High School history teacher Elizabeth Thiel headed outside to the bus stop, joining several students. Thiel said she could see the TriMet bus that she and the students were expecting to ride.
“It was just one stop down from McDaniel,” she said, but it was stuck. Thiel, former Portland Association of Teachers president, spent more than an hour at a Popeye’s down the street from the school with several students, including her daughter, waiting on a TriMet bus that never came. She eventually hitched a ride home with the parent of her daughter’s friend.
Students across the city take TriMet. Officials said Wednesday more than 100 buses had gotten stuck in the snow. On Thursday, the transit agency canceled 18 routes and warned of detours on others.
Snow and school closures also disrupted a planned school visit for U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Cardona and U.S. Representative Andrea Salinas were set to visit Valor Middle School in Woodburn Thursday afternoon to tour the school and sit down with parents. But due to the snow and Woodburn schools closing Thursday, the visit was canceled. However, Sec. Cardona was able to keep a planned speaking engagement Thursday in Portland as part of the National Association of Bilingual Educators conference.
PCC faculty union demands weather-related compensation
Some Portland Community College staff and students were among the many people in western Oregon stuck in hours of standstill traffic during Wednesday’s abrupt snowstorm. PCC’s faculty union is calling out the college for not taking action soon enough to close campuses and send people home.
The PCC Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals, or PCCFFAP, created a petition Wednesday evening stating that it would be filing a grievance against the college. As a remedy, it’s requesting that the college compensate any employee or student who was negatively affected with $300. The union also wants its members to participate in emergency closure decision-making in the future.
Nearly 400 people had signed in support of the petition by Thursday afternoon.
Laura Wadlin, a PCC faculty member teaching English for speakers of other languages and the union’s lead steward, told OPB that the college alerted employees and students after 4 p.m. Wednesday that the campuses would close. By then, the snow had been falling and accumulating for a few hours in the Portland region. In comparison, Wadlin said, Mt. Hood Community College told its community members about its campus closure before noon.
“Why were they not responsive to the quickly emerging crisis by noon or 1 p.m.?” Wadlin asked of PCC.
Wadlin said she was getting messages from union members throughout the evening who were stuck in traffic for hours, some of whom had to sleep in their cars. One union member who lives in Vancouver didn’t get home until 6 a.m. Thursday. Wadlin said she also heard about a student who attempted to travel home after their class ended at 4 p.m., got stuck in Northwest Portland and had to rent a hotel room.
“We’re asking for things that are very simple that should honestly not even take a second thought. If you mess something up, you need to make people whole, so that’s why we’re saying a simple compensation of $300 for everyone who was affected by the late announcement, and we need union representation on whatever committee is responsible for deciding this,” Wadlin said.
Wadlin said the union was especially disappointed that the college had not communicated any reason for the late-in-the-day announcement or expressed any concern for students and employees who faced hardships getting home.
“We cannot have a situation where decisions are made in this hierarchical way, this way that is isolated from everyone they affect,” she said. “We need to live up to our name; we are a community college. The community needs to have faith in the institution, and this really erodes faith in the administrators who are currently in charge.”
PCC said in a statement Thursday afternoon that it cannot comment on the union’s petition. But, the college said it monitored the weather throughout the day on Wednesday.
“As it became clear the weather was worsening we decisively took action to close the campuses and set out emergency alerts to faculty, staff and students,” PCC said. “PCC is a large district with varying weather conditions which always makes forecasting and decisions to close difficult. We are thankful for our employees who ensured a safe evacuation for staff and students from the campuses during this eventful storm.”
Wadlin and other union leaders questioned whether the administrators making the closure decision were even on campus during Wednesday’s snowfall. The college said they were.
Geography and timing factors in whether school buses faced problems in the snow
The timing of the snow’s arrival Wednesday, the region’s varied geography and decisions made by school officials were all factors in how safely and quickly students got home through the storm. A few school districts on the Portland region’s east side reported problems with a few buses and routes. A Gresham-Barlow School District spokesperson said the district closed schools early and for the most part, students got home on time — but not everyone.
“[Thursday] afternoon two of our buses did get stuck on hilly routes in our district,” said Gresham-Barlow’s communications director Athena Vadnais in an email to OPB. But Vadnais said transportation services staff reacted right away and students got home “with little delay.”
In another district serving Gresham and Southeast Portland, Centennial, some students also faced difficulty getting home from school.
Albert Rosales-Korrea, chief communications officer for the district, said students were let out on an early release schedule. From there, most buses got students home without incident.
”They [bus drivers] did a superb job getting our kids home [Thursday],” Rosales-Korrea said. However, in carrying one student up a hill, one bus got stuck. Rosales-Korrea said the district’s director of transportation used another vehicle to get to the student and driver and get them home safely.
At another Centennial school, Oliver Middle School, weather caused delays in student pick-ups and caused some students to wait at the school until 6 p.m., Rosales-Korrea said.
In the North Clackamas School District, officials say problems were isolated to an area of the district that can be challenging to drive through in snowy or icy conditions.
“While the weather forced some buses in our Happy Valley attendance area to either cancel or alter routes, we were able to communicate with families promptly and arrange alternate transportation for affected students,” said Seth Gordon in an email.
Gordon continued, “Some students who normally ride the bus did need to be picked up by their parents. In some cases, the district sent alternative vehicles, which were better able to navigate the roads, to transport students home.”
Gordon said a “handful of high school students” were redirected to a middle school for pickup, and all students were safely in the company of their families by 7 p.m.
Several school districts reported no notable problems — including Lake Oswego, where a spokesperson said snow fell in that area a little later than it hit much of Portland, and allowed school buses to deliver kids home before roads became treacherous. The neighboring West Linn-Wilsonville School District also reported no “late buses or transportation mishaps” according to a spokesperson. Across the region in the Reynolds School District in east Multnomah County, students also arrived home without incident, according to an official there.