• When inclement weather looms, PPS Transportation crew hits the road -- early

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    Collage of PPS Transportation crew.

    Among the crew that goes out to check roads on days with inclement weather: (top, from left) Mary Richhart, Sharon Pierce, Sam Sonnichsen and John Kowitz; (bottom from left) Sandy van Baggen and Sheila Morris.

    It was early on a recent morning, and the students of Portland Public Schools were (hopefully) deep into a restful night of sleep. But there was little rest for select members of the PPS Transportation crew. With a chance of snow and freezing temperatures forecasted, the crew hit the road around 2:30 a.m. to get first-hand information that would help answer the big question the students and their families would have when they woke up:

    Do we have school today?

    Inclement weather, the type Portland saw this year in mid- to late February and into the first week of March, can trigger total school closures, as happened in PPS this year on Feb. 5, when snow and freezing temperatures prompted the district of close all schools and offices for the day. Or it can cause a delay in opening, as happened Feb. 25, when schools opened two hours late.

    The decision to close or delay is not made lightly in PPS. It involves a multitude of staff, and it starts with the before-dawn road checks by PPS Student Transportation staff and First Student, PPS’s contracted bus service. Nine staff members form five teams that climb into district vehicles and drive to key spots around the district, covering about 75 miles. On four of the teams, one member drives, while the other texts updates to Teri Brady, the Assistant Director of Transportation.

    The crew of Sandy van Baggen, Sheila Morris, Sharon Pierce, Sam Sonnichsen, Brandon Coonrod, Mary Richhart, John Kowitz, Mike Legette and Darleen Van Riper has gone out early 19 times during the 2018-19 school year.

    “We drive as many roads in the district as we can to ensure the safety of the kids,” Brady said. “I rely on my team. They’re my eyes and ears.”

    Crew members in the field, in coordination with Brady, operations manager Keith Wright and routing manager Rob McDougald, assess road conditions to see if they will be safe for buses and PPS families to drive. Brady says that while the city and county de-ice the main thoroughfares, side roads that are not treated are key, especially those that feed to schools.

    Brady and four other managers from the Transportation and Maintenance teams gather reports from the field crew and remain in touch with key agencies, including police, TriMet, the city, county and other Portland-area school districts. They also are in constant touch with the district’s contracted meteorologist, Phil Volker, and also monitor reports from other experts, most notably the National Weather Service and Weather Underground.

    The information gathered is presented to a six-member decision-making team no later than 5 a.m. The decision can go several ways, including opening as usual, delaying the entire district, opening with buses on snow routes (either for the entire district or select schools), or closing completely for the day. The team presents a recommendation to Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, who makes the final decision by 5:30 a.m.

    From there, the decision is given to multiple parties, starting with the Communications team, which uses multiple platforms to inform families and media. (Read more about how information is sent out.) The decision is also relayed to members of an implementation team, including administrators from Nutrition Services IT, Athletics, Human Resources, Child Care, Special Education, Risk Management and after-school SUN.

    With spring around the corner and the daylight saving time already in effect, it might seem the early wakeups are over for the Transportation crew. But Brady, who has worked in PPS for 12 years, has a word of caution, saying:

    “We’ve had closures in April.”