Seven of the 10 school districts in Clark County were closed Wednesday due to a dense, freezing fog that made driving treacherous.
A similar scenario could be repeated today. Freezing fog is forecast before 10 a.m. The National Weather Service predicts an 80 percent chance of freezing rain.
Temperatures are expected to warm above freezing later in the day, with precipitation turning to rain after 1 p.m. Today's high is expected to be near 38.
School district officials throughout Clark County say that because of the unpredictable weather, they've been making — and changing — their schedules on the fly.
Wednesday's icy roads prompted early-morning decisions by school superintendents to first announce late starts, then, when roads did not improve, to close schools in Battle Ground, Evergreen, Hockinson, La Center, Ridgefield, Vancouver and Washougal. Schools were delayed by one or two hours in the Camas, Green Mountain and Woodland school districts.
"Tuesday night at 6 p.m., our first information was the freezing fog would lift around 8 a.m., but it didn't lift," said Mick Hoffman, who directs transportation for Vancouver Public Schools. "We checked the roads and found a mess. It didn't clear like we thought it would. You can always make up a school day. We're always going to put the kids' safety a priority."
Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., Washougal announced it would start classes two hours late Wednesday. But by Wednesday morning, officials realized parts of the district were inaccessible.
"We are a district with varying elevations, so many of the roads were covered with hard ice (Tuesday) night," Superintendent Dawn Tarzian said. "Things just didn't warm up fast enough to keep school open so we could transport kids safely."
At 4 a.m. Wednesday, Cascade Student Transportation, the bus company for both the Battle Ground and Hockinson school districts, went out to look at the roads, said Sean Chavez, spokesman for Battle Ground Public Schools.
"They knew the icy conditions were coming, so decided to call a 2 1/2-hour late start, and then announced buses were on snow routes."
But around 8 a.m., Vancouver and La Center districts decided to close. Battle Ground's transportation team called the transportation teams in those districts and decided to close because of black ice.
"In this county, we have great communication in our schools with the superintendents and transportation and weather folks talking with each other," said Hoffman of Vancouver.
Evergreen Public Schools were open Tuesday, but closed Wednesday. Its transportation crew started driving at 3 a.m. Wednesday to check road conditions, said Gail Spolar, district spokeswoman.
"Tuesday, our problem areas were not problems. We had no incidents," Spolar said.
The district operates between 210 and 250 buses on any given day, varying based on sports and activities, she said. "This morning (Wednesday), there were definitely, definitely problems," Spolar said.
When La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell took to the roads at around 5 a.m. Wednesday, he found sheets of ice coating streets. He conferred with Shannon Barnett — supervisor for the transportation cooperative serving La Center, Ridgefield, Woodland and Kalama — and discovered the conditions were not exclusive to his neighborhood. The cold snap extended across the northern tip of Clark County and into Cowlitz County.
"We have enough experience to know that typically if conditions are such (in Woodland), conditions are going to be similar in other parts of the cooperative," Mansell said.
Other considerations factored into Wednesday's decision to close schools in La Center and elsewhere. One of those: Conditions have to be safe for teachers and other staff members to make it into work, Mansell said, so classes are staffed.
When Mansell saw that the Evergreen School District had cancelled classes, he knew the overnight freeze extended south, to areas where many teachers live. He said he couldn't ask them to make the drive north in possibly hazardous conditions.
Most districts subscribe to a weather service and have a team of people driving the roads to see if they'll be accessible, said Hoffman from Vancouver.
"We go out from 2 to 3 in the morning and hit the roads. Then we track the weather. We consider not just the buses, but at the high school, kids driving to school. At all levels, kids are walking to bus stops. Cars will be slipping and sliding near those bus stops. There's a lot of factors," Hoffman said. "As far as Thursday (today), at this point, we're tracking, communicating with our weather folks," Hoffman said. "We've got a contingency plan."
Regarding the possibility of freezing rain after classes begin, Spolar from Evergreen said, "It's problematic that weather could hit during the school day, but it's also problematic to make a decision before weather hits because it's so unpredictable."
The Camas School District was one of three districts not to turn students away Wednesday. District officials said they were confident roads would be clear of ice patches by the time buses started their routes.
"We just weren't impacted that severely," said Doreen McKercher, the district's spokeswoman.
For the rest of the week, McKercher said the district would monitor changing weather patterns on an hour-by-hour basis.
In 2014, Tarzian said Washougal School District will look at pushing back late starts from two hours to three. That would give the weather more time to warm up and melt pockets of ice and possibly prevent all-day closures, she said.
After Vancouver announced its decision to change from starting classes two hours late to closing schools on Wednesday, the district posted this message on its Facebook page: "The decision to close Vancouver Public Schools was made because icy road conditions have not improved in many areas of our district. Please stay safe!"
More than 120 people "liked" the comment, and many parents posted comments thanking the district for putting safety first.
Vancouver parent Michelle Zabell posted: "A good call. We're staying home today, and everyone is going to cozy up by the fire and read. Hot chocolate will be involved."