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Schools played it safe with storm

Princeton public school officials said concerns about students getting to school safely and the availability of two of its contracted bus companies led to a day off for students Monday as people around the region dug out from the weekend snowstorm.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Public schools in Princeton were ready to be open on Monday after winter storm Jonas struck only days earlier, but the district said concerns about students getting to school safely and the availability of two of its contracted bus companies led to a day off for students instead.
Crews worked through the weekend to clear parking lots and sidewalks in front of schools of roughly two feet of snow left by a blizzard that began Friday and ended Saturday night.
“The timing of the storm, actually, couldn’t have been more perfect,” said Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane at Tuesday’s school board meeting in explaining why schools were closed Monday and on delayed opening Tuesday. “And of course many, including myself, were hoping that all would be ready for an opening of school on Monday.”
No schools lost power, but other considerations came into play for Mr. Cochrane.
“The question really came down to could our students get to the schools safely,” he continued. In deciding to close school, he consulted with police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter, district facilities manager Gary Weisman and other superintendents from the county and factored in all the information he had been gathering up to that point.
Mr. Cochrane said he and other district officials on Sunday drove around the community checking things out. He said that while major streets and school parking lots were cleared, side roads were “messy” and most sidewalks — roughly 70 percent of them — were unshoveled.
School bus stops were blocked and inaccessible due to the “sheer volume” of snow pushed to the sides of roads.
“To get to school, hundreds of students would have to walk in the street, hundreds of others would have to stand in the street to board a bus — assuming that the buses could get there, which was a big question,” he said. “Side streets, made narrow by piles of snow on both sides, presented problems for our 54-passenger buses trying to make turns.”
He said that late in the day Sunday, one of the district’s bus companies indicated it was having trouble shoveling buses out of its yard and might not send drivers on Monday — a day when schools in Mercer County were closed.
Schools were on a 90-minute delayed opening Tuesday. “We felt that the hour and a half would give the commuters a chance to clear the roads before our buses came through and a chance to warm up the roads a little bit, so walking would be safer,” he said.
At the same time, he said he recognized that closing school is a “major disruption” for working families. “It’s not a decision that I take lightly,” he said, “but I’m grateful for everyone’s understanding as we strive to keep students safe.”
Earlier in the week, Mayor Liz Lempert, the mother of two daughters in the public schools, said the district made a “good call” in closing schools.
The storm hit the area hard. Mr. Weisman said Tuesday that it was one of the worst he has had to deal with it “in terms of the volume of snow.”
“The drifting really presented a challenge,” he said. “No sooner would we have an area cleared that you look back, and it’s covered over again. So that was a problem.”

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