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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 16 2014

F-M school officials stand by decision to cancel classes

FARGO – Parents in Fargo-Moorhead might have looked out of their homes Thursday and wondered where the blizzard was that kept their kids home from school.

The answer: Wherever there was loose snow to blow.

Thursday’s ground blizzard may not have drifted snow to the rooftops, but John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for WDAY-TV, said it was a more dangerous event than the Jan. 6 cold that closed schools in much of the region.

“A ground blizzard is different from a regular blizzard,” Wheeler said, because rather than falling snow, the high winds whip up loose snow to cause low visibility.

“Out in the country, part of the time you would have seen all right, and sometimes you would have been in a whiteout,” he said.

“This is dangerous from the edge of town” outward, Wheeler said. “You’re looking at this from The Forum building. … Try driving out to Davies (High School).”

Most schools in the Red River Valley were closed Thursday.

Bismarck and Jamestown public schools farther west remained open, though there was some worry for a couple of hours when Interstate 94 was closed between the two cities because of poor visibility.

“For us, it was doable,” because Jamestown was on the edge of the storm, Superintendent Rob Lech said. “We were lucky. We were lucky.”

Fargo and West Fargo school officials said they made the best decision they could Wednesday evening after pouring over forecasts, and talking to meteorologists and officials from other school districts and local universities.

West Fargo Business Manager Mark Lemer said the warnings were hard to ignore, with wind gusts predicted at 65 mph, and terms such as “life-threatening” cold and “zero visibility” used.

“We’re thinking about conditions that affect kids directly” at the bus stops, Lemer said. “In the end, we erred on the side of making that call early.”

Fargo Superintendent Jeff Schatz said each weather event is unique.

“We go with the best information we have,” he said. “You wake up in the morning and it doesn’t turn out? Well, you went with the best information you have.

“I still think with the high winds today and things like that, I think that our decision that we made, along with others, is still OK,” he said.

Not only is the safety of children important, he said, but of staff, too.

“(Fargo Public Schools is) a big system, There’s a lot of things you look at,” Schatz said. “If you can’t get the whole system up and going and do it properly, it’s pretty tough to (run). It’s more than looking out a window.”

Michael Smith, superintendent of the Blessed John Paul II Catholic Schools system, followed the lead of the public schools and universities.

“At 3 a.m., I sure thought it was the right call. It sounded like there was a train coming on through,” Smith said.

Capt. Bryan Niewind of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said Thursday that visibility in and around Fargo was decent and the interstates were dry. However, outside the metro area in open country, blowing snow made it tough to see, he said.

Along with some vehicles in highway ditches, a rollover was reported Thursday morning on Interstate 29 north of Fargo, but no one was hurt. In general, traffic was light, likely due to weather-related cancellations and closings, Niewind said.

Via Twitter, Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the Minnesota State Patrol said troopers dealt with several vehicles that slid off highways. With visibility down to 100 to 150 feet in some spots, Grabow urged drivers to avoid unnecessary travel in west-central and northwest Minnesota.

Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll

contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583