Shortly after flurries turned to snow Tuesday, the superintendents of the county's five public school systems held a phone conference and decided at 10:30 a.m. that class should be called off. But driving conditions were already deteriorating, and by the time the officials realized they needed to dismiss schools, it was too dangerous to use buses.
"This is a normal snowstorm for us, but the problem was we had no advanced warning," said Oxford Fire Chief Gary Sparks. "It hit, and it hit fast."
By 11 a.m. teachers, parents and police and fire chiefs were beginning to coordinate an effort to take the kids home. But it would be hours before the last students and faculty members left campuses.
"We thought we were going to be like some of the schools in Birmingham," said Roy Bennett, Oxford City Schools public information officer. "It all held together like it has in the past, but this is the most trying event I've had in my 30 years."
Some students waited in schools while their parents were trapped in hours-long traffic jams, caught in wrecks, or stuck at homes surrounded by icy roads. People who were unable to pick their children up from school relied on friends, family, and neighbors to do the job.
Amy Boothe was stuck inside her home on top of an icy hill, so she relied on friend Adrienne Pridgen to pick her child up from Kitty Stone Elementary School Tuesday. Pridgen, who has two children who attend the school, said cars in Jacksonville were sliding in all directions when she left her home at about 11 a.m.
"JSU traffic was releasing at the same time everybody else was trying to get out," Pridgen said. "There was just traffic everywhere."
While parents drove on icy roads through snowy conditions to pick their children up, teachers and administrators inside schools tried to help coordinate the effort. Teachers emailed, texted and called parents seeking exceptions to guidelines that determine which adults can take a child from school, officials said.
Some teachers walked students to their parents' cars for pickup as the snow came down. Some educators rode with students while they were being shuttled home.
The Calhoun County Sheriff's Office as well as police and fire departments in almost every city in the county partnered with schools in the effort. The Sheriff's Office transported students in Calhoun County Schools until after 10 p.m., the Anniston police and fire departments used vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive and snow chains to deliver students to their homes, and in Oxford, police officers and firefighters shuttled students in humvees.
In Jacksonville, school lunchroom workers at Kitty Stone Elementary reheated vegetable soup for students who were marooned until late in the day, Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said. The systems' two campuses were both empty by 5 p.m., their employees and students home for the night, he said.
"While they were with us they were in a safe, warm environment," Campbell said. "There was not a sense of panic. The kids were great; the teachers were phenomenal."
The stories coming out of the Jacksonville City School system echoed those told by other school officials across the county.
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge said the last Oxford students made it home around 4:30 p.m., with help from police officers and the Fire Department.
Piedmont officials said their schools were empty by 1:30 p.m.
Calhoun County Schools safety director Mike Fincher said at the system's 1:30 p.m. phone conference that between 1,500 and 2,000 students remained at school.
Matthew Wade, chief deputy of the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday morning that deputies got the last students in the county system home from schools in Saks “well after 9” Tuesday night. Deputies drove surplus military vehicles with four-wheel drive.
“We made it work,” Wade said. “All those kids were in good spirits. We were thankful to be able to get them home.”
Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said her last students made it home at about 9:30 p.m., thanks to the help of Anniston police, firefighters, the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, the city's Public Works Department and many parents who picked up their neighbor’s children in addition to their own. City Councilman David Reddick, she said, ferried children home from Randolph Park Elementary School in his own four-wheel-drive vehicle. School staff who stayed with students then were taken home or to a local hotel.
“The assistance that we received … I don’t know how we’re ever going to say ‘thank you’ enough,” Frazier said this morning.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.