Once the first flake of snow hits the ground, parents around Madison County start to wonder if their child will head off to school the next day.
While most students enjoy a good snow day and a chance for a break from schoolwork, it makes things chaotic for the adults. When school gets called off because of the weather, parents and guardians have to scramble, sometimes at the last minute, to find child care. But when the decision to cancel school is made, it's never meant to inconvenience parents.
"We want to let parents know as soon as we can that we're not going to have school. I get it, they've got kids, they've got jobs, and they gotta make other arrangements since they're not going to school," said Shane Lakes, director of transportation for Madison County Schools.
That means that Lakes, along with six other district administrators including superintendent David Gilliam, wake up around 3:45 in the morning to drive their respective routes around Madison County, checking the school parkings lots, sidewalks and roads.
One such person might take a route that leads around Battlefield Memorial, Wolf Gap and Red Lick, while another will take Valley View, Jacks Creek, and Simpson Lane. A third person will take Scaffold Cane, Blue Lick and Highway 1016 while a fourth heads to the area of Waco, Forest Lane and Charlie Norris.
Another checks the Poosey Ridge area, while someone else checks out Union City and Redhouse, and the last person checks the area by the airport and Paint Lick. The drivers also veer off the traditional routes to check some of the other side roads as well.
While the entire county can't be covered by these seven men alone, the routes that they have chosen stretch across Berea and Richmond, giving each of them a piece of the puzzle to report on. While they are out, they communicate with one another about the road conditions and look for reasons to cancel school.
"Our goal is to have school. We always want to have school. So when we go out in the morning, we look for reasons not to have school," Lakes said. "Our first priority is safety of our students and our staff."
But with such a big county to cover, problems can arise. There could be inches of snow in the area of Valley View, but in the area of Blue Lick, it might be as dry as a bone. The seven snow crew members take photos and make notes to compare with each other to decide the best course of action for the day.
But the decision to call off school ultimately comes down to one person -- Gilliam. He takes the input received from the other six members to help make his decision. Once the decision to cancel has been made, Lakes begins calling the news stations to let them know, and another person begins the process of sharing the information with parents, staff and students.
One thing the county does try to avoid doing is two-hour delays or dismissing early. While it creates chaos in school, it also creates issues at home, especially with younger children. When it comes to dismissing early, it leaves parents scrambling to get home or to the school in time to pick up their child. It also makes it difficult, depending on how bad the weather is, to get the kids home.
"We don't want to drive the kids home on slick roads," Lakes said. "That's just not safe."
In the instances when school is canceled before a flake even forms, Lakes said, when they know a snow storm is headed their way, they look to nearby counties to see what they are doing. This leads to the county having to make a decision before it's too late.
"When we know it is coming with great degree of certainty, and we're going to get hit, it doesn't make sense for us to take the kids to school just to go back an hour later to take them home and hope someone is there," Lakes said. "That might be a frustrating thing for parents but sometimes we have to look at what we think (is) coming and make the best educational decision that we can."
Early dismissals and two-hour delays also impact those who work within the school system. Some bus drivers work more than one job, which can result in conflicts when school is being pushed back two hours or letting out for the day at lunch. Food service workers are also impacted, as some arrive early in the morning to make sure there is breakfast for students when they arrive.
But regardless of the reason, it's all done in the name of safety for the students of Madison County.
"I'll never apologize for keeping your kids safe," Lakes said. "We're not trying to make anyone mad or inconvenience anyone, but safety is our biggest concern. We'd never want to put your children in harm's way."
Reach Kaitlyn Brooks at 624-6608; follow her on Twitter @kaitlynskovran.