St. Paul schools apologize for hundreds of stuck kids after snowstorm

Backed up traffic waits at a light as pedestrians arrive at the Xcel Arena.
Backed up cars and school buses wait at a light as pedestrians arrive at the Xcel Arena for a Minnesota Wild hockey game Monday night in St. Paul.
Jim Mone | AP

Updated: 5 p.m. | Posted: 6:51 a.m.

St. Paul school officials are apologizing to parents and students after long delays on buses in Monday night's snow storm.

About 300 St. Paul students were stuck on buses or in schools between 10 p.m. and midnight Monday, according to the district. The last student arrived home at 12:05 a.m. Tuesday.

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District officials said they don't know how many students were affected by delays, but they estimated the total at about 10,000, or about a third of all students the district buses.

Joe Gothard
Joe Gothard
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune file

"I'm very sorry for what happened yesterday," St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said Tuesday afternoon.

Some parents took to the district's Facebook page, questioning why district leaders did not cancel classes early. Some, like the South Washington County school district, called off school ahead of the storm.

St. Paul posted an apology and explanation on its Facebook page, saying the district just didn't anticipate that much snow coming at the end of the school day.

Gothard said the decision about whether or not to cancel school Monday had to be made early in the morning.

"The information I had at 5 a.m. led me to make a decision. I think in looking at this, analyzing, working with our partners in the future, there's no doubt that this experience will factor into future decisions," he said.

A school district spokesperson said they had three successive waves of dismissals and the second wave got snarled up in rush hour gridlock around the city.

She said it was after 10 p.m. before some buses made it to the last of the schools. Many parents eventually went and picked up their kids, but schools fed some dinner and even snacks during the wait.

Polly Norrie, a fifth-grade teacher at Farnsworth Aerospace school on St. Paul's east side, said that at 9 p.m there was no sign of how kids were getting home.

"They had 50 to 60 kids, and about 20 staff members that were getting shovels out of their cars, they were pushing buses — some that belonged to other schools on their previous routes," Norrie said. "Staff members got into their trucks and bought pizzas for the school, for the kids and the staff."

She said even Mayor Melvin Carter stopped by to help shovel out cars and buses.

"It was an all-hands-on-deck night," he said. "I was one of countless neighbors and teachers and school bus drivers who worked hard to try and support families and help get kids home last night."

But teacher Norrie said she was disappointed by district management — including transportation officials — who didn't keep parents up to date.

"It's kind of silent from that end," she said.

St. Paul teaching assistant Dave Holm hopped off a school bus in downtown St. Paul Monday night and went into a SuperAmerica gas station to buy chips and water for his students. Holm works at St. Paul's Bridge View special education school, where the students all have severe disabilities.

Holm said the bus was more than an hour late picking students up from the school and then got stuck in traffic. He thinks the district made the wrong decision when it opted not to cancel school Monday because delays hit special needs students especially hard.

"Some of them have no idea why they're sitting on the bus for as long as they're sitting. They don't know why am I not home, why can't I eat? They don't know what's going on," Holm said.

St. Paul officials said between 50 and 75 special needs students experienced delays, with the latest arriving home by 10 p.m.

Some children were ferried home in police squad cars.

St. Paul police spokesperson Mike Ernster said his department started getting calls for help just before 6 p.m. The night wrapped up just before 11 p.m. when police picked up about a dozen students still waiting at Wellstone elementary in downtown St. Paul.

He didn't know exactly how many had been dropped off at home by squad car.

Steve VanZyl, a paraprofessional who works in the autism program at Washington Technology Magnet School in the city's North End, said he sat with 10 students on their bus for about three hours on Westminster Street after school.

"We were trying to move around and just kept getting deeper and deeper into the gutter," he said.

Neighbors armed with shovels, kitty litter and a snowblower eventually came to the rescue.

VanZyl said students got on the bus a little after 3 p.m.; there was one left when he got off the bus at 10 p.m.

The district has apologized to affected families.

"We know that it was both a concern and a hardship for those whose children arrived home several hours after the school day had ended. We are immensely thankful for the staff that remained at the schools to care for our students well into the evening hours," the district said.

Buses were also delayed Monday in Minneapolis, although a spokesperson said Minneapolis students were home by 9:30 p.m.

Both St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools were closed Tuesday, as were many others in southern Minnesota.

No matter the district, it's a hard call for a superintendent who has to decide whether to cancel school, said former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

Officials, she added, want to minimize lost educational time, and many parents rely on schools for child care and even meals. Weather can also change after a decision.

"We can't control what happens in the universe, and so you feel out of control, really," Johnson said. She added that during her time in Minneapolis she focused on making the decision as early as possible and prioritizing safety.

Would she have called off school Monday in St. Paul or Minneapolis?

Johnson said she would have "strongly considered" it, but, ultimately, she doesn't know. She's just glad it's not her call anymore.