Just this afternoon, at about 12:15 p.m., I received word that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has officially canceled the emergency energy procedures that began yesterday morning.
Wednesday's rolling power blackouts were mandated by ERCOT. They caught everyone by surprise, especially Austin Energy, and no one knew how long it would take to bring stability to the power system. Please know that no one contacted AISD for permission or approval in this matter. It is within ERCOT's authority to act independently from the City and AISD. After limited communication from ERCOT about what was happening, AISD was told early on Wednesday morning that schools and hospitals would be protected from the blackouts. Further, they told us that blackouts would work in short intervals of seven or so minutes, and then "roll" to other areas of the city. That is why we maintained business as usual, and continued with our normal work schedule. Later in the morning, after school started, they alerted us that schools were not protected. Some of our campuses lost power for an extended time, some had intermittent power, and some never lost power at all. The evolution of the situation was impossible to predict throughout the day.
A question I've gotten is about the timing of our communications yesterday. I'm sure that staff at the affected schools felt alone in the world when power went out. I know the staff here at the Administration Center did. Throughout the morning, we labored to gather information, consult with City and Austin Energy officials, assess conditions at individual campuses, "predict" the future, form the content of our messages, and send out e-mails and telephone calls to parents/caregivers and staff — and all this was done through periods of intermittent power here at CAC. In this age of almost instant communication, we're not accustomed to waiting for clarification and direction, but when the tools break down — the tools needed to process and communicate information — we must be patient and continue to do our best with the job at hand.
Having students in our care is a responsibility that I take very seriously, and this speaks to the question of why I did not close affected schools early on Wednesday. Once a child has climbed aboard a school bus or entered a school building, we are responsible for their welfare. When school is in session, it is always best that we observe a normal schedule. Our parents/caregivers expect us to safeguard their children during specific hours, and they arrange their own schedules and jobs accordingly. This is how I frame the issue:
- School is the safest place for our students, especially our youngest children.
- Employers do not always "early dismiss" their employees who are parents/caregivers of students, so children could be left unsupervised or stranded.
- Informing parents/caregivers of an early dismissal is hit-or-miss, and can lead to confusion and missed connections.
- Students may return to an empty home and may be locked out; or they could be unsupervised in places elsewhere than their homes, unknown to their parents/caregivers.
- Safety must always be our top priority, and releasing more than 84,000 students in the middle of a school day invites trouble and unsafe conditions for kids and anxious disruptions for families. It's as simple as that.
I've also gotten a few questions about why we waited until this morning to decide if we should open schools on time today or have a delayed start. Simply put, last night there was no information from the City, Austin Energy, or ERCOT to suggest such an action was needed. I was always in contact with key officials who knew the data and provided advisory information. It was clear: wait until morning.
In situations like this, in circumstances like this, I will not make a definitive decision until I have up-to-date and accurate data. As soon as I learned that rolling power blackouts would not take place today — at around 4:30 a.m. and following the early-morning conference with officials at the Austin-Travis County Emergency Operations Center — I made the decision to open schools today on the normal schedule. So far, as there have been no power outages, it was the right decision and I believe it was reached in the appropriate manner.
Tonight we'll be facing another situation: a snow forecast. The calls have already started ... "Will schools close on Friday?"
I want to be clear about my decision-making protocol: Unless treacherous conditions are prevalent before the morning, at about 4 a.m., I'll consult with law enforcement, transportation, and weather officials to determine if the roads are safe enough for students to travel to school. We will post an announcement at about 5 a.m. on our website, and will contact all local news media about our decision. Please check these sources for information at that time.
Events of this week have been unusual, and I'm very proud of our teachers and other staff members who cared for students on Wednesday in trying conditions. Their efforts to keep campus activities normal in very abnormal circumstances were top-notch. Thank you, staff. You're the best!