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Ferndale school administrators say fourth day of closures was a safety precaution

Ferndale and Lummi Nation schools remained closed for the fourth day Wednesday, the longest stretch of school closures in the county since Friday’s initial lowland snowfall.

Ferndale schools Superintendent Linda Quinn said the district will announce a decision about Thursday classes early in the morning.

Ferndale schools were first closed Friday, when parts of Whatcom County got as much as 3.5 inches of snow. Blaine and Lummi Nation school districts were also closed. Bellingham had already scheduled Friday off for a teacher workday.

Residents throughout the county woke up Monday to another fresh layer of snow, which was as thick as 4.5 inches in places like Sudden Valley. The conditions led every public school in Whatcom County to close.

As the freeze continued into Tuesday, Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, Lummi Nation and Meridian schools closed again. Nooksack Valley, Lynden and Lynden Christian schools delayed start times by two hours as buses slowly worked their routes.

Besides the Ferndale and Lummi closures, Blaine, Meridian and Nooksack Valley districts also announced start-time delays Wednesday morning.

The decision in Ferndale to close again, announced on the district’s Facebook page, wasn’t an easy one, Quinn said. It drew criticism from some commenters but support from others.

“It’s all about safety,” Quinn said late Wednesday morning.

A representative for the Lummi Nation did not immediately return messages requesting comment.

Ferndale school district crews inspected the roads late Tuesday night and then again early Wednesday morning, said Mark Deebach, assistant superintendent for business and support services. While main arterial roads, like Grandview and Slater roads and Main Street, were relatively clear of ice and snow, smaller roads in the more rural parts of the county were not, he said.

The district covers about 140 miles of roads, Deebach added.

Even if buses were to run, Quinn said, they would need to run on modified routes to stay off the ice. That means students would need to walk farther to get to the bus. In areas where plows sent snow piling up on sidewalks, students typically walk in the streets, she added, which presents an obvious problem.

“We’re worried about cars not being able to stop,” she said.

Other Facebook commenters wondered why the buses couldn’t just put chains on their tires. It’s not that simple, Deebach said, when some roads are covered in ice and others are clear.

“If they run on dry pavement, that’s particularly problematic for roads, tires and the rest of the bus,” he said.

Marianne Zaugg, 36, whose daughter is a Ferndale first-grader, said she understood the safety concerns but wished there was more that could be done to get kids back in school. She said she worried about kids who come from low-income families that rely on the schools for child care.

“If those kids are out of school for four days, are they getting fed and staying warm?” she said.

Zaugg said she spent some of Wednesday morning calling local, county and state officials, including lawmakers, to ask about getting resources to help clear the roads in the area.

“That was just my way of doing something about it,” she said. “That’s my whole goal – how can we be helpful to the district?”

The closure also drew comparisons to other districts that remained open Wednesday, like Bellingham. John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, said the climate throughout the county isn’t always consistent.

“A lot of people forget that Whatcom County is not Bellingham and Bellingham is not Whatcom County, weatherwise,” Gargett said, adding that microclimates throughout the county can mean different conditions even a few miles away.

“It’s a tough call to make,” Gargett added. “You’re almost darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”

The Whatcom County Public Works Department has had crews working around the clock to keep the roads clear, Gargett said.

Ferndale built in a week of makeup days for this academic year, which run from June 19-23, Quinn said. At this rate, they are likely to use all of those days. But administrators are considering petitioning the state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction to waive those days, she added.

“We’re going to look at what we can do,” Quinn said. “Our situation seems to be much worse than other districts in the county.”

Temperatures in Bellingham and Whatcom County will hover around freezing through Saturday, said Josh Smith, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle. Highs will stay in the low 30s, with lows dipping into the low 20s, he said.

The cold weather is expected to accompany mostly sunny days, meaning it’s hard to forecast road conditions for the rest of the week, Smith said. But what’s already on the ground is likely to refreeze over the next several nights.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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