At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, officials with the Eastern School District felt it was OK to go ahead with the school day. A few hours later, weather conditions on the Avalon Peninsula painted a much different picture.
Snow — twice as much as was initially forecasted — combined with heavy winds to produce zero-visibility conditions at times, leaving a lengthy trail of trouble in its aftermath.
Schools and businesses closed, vehicles and snowplows got stuck on the Trans-Canada Highway, and several school buses veered off roads.
According to Environment Canada, most parts of the Avalon region experienced 20 centimetres of snowfall, with winds at the airport in St. John’s peaking at 78 kilometres per hour.
According to Eastern School District director of education Ford Rice, most buses were able to get back on the road or were replaced. In one case, a group of students from Beachy Cove Elementary in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s had to be picked up by parents.
To his knowledge, there were no reports of injuries involving students on any of the buses.
Jennifer Oosthuizen, a resident of Summit Drive in Paradise, said three buses went off the road on her street.
“There was zero-visibility,” she said of conditions at the time.
One bus carrying students from Villanova Junior High School went into a ditch across the street from her home.
Oosthuizen, who had already picked up her son from school, offered to let the bus driver and students come inside her home and warm up as they waited for another bus to arrive.
“Some of them were shaken up,” she said.
She said most students managed to contact a parent to pick them up before the replacement bus arrived.
A pair of school buses also had to turn back as a result of a road closure on the Conception Bay South Highway near the College of the North Atlantic Seal Cove campus because of a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigation.
Rice said the 5 a.m. snowfall advisory was for 10 centimetres, but it was not long after schools opened that an updated forecast painted a messier picture, with both increased snowfall and stronger winds forecasted to start earlier in the day.
“No one could have predicted what happened with the weather today,” he said.
Though questions were raised as to why students were sent home instead of being kept at school, Rice said had they chose to wait, some students would have been travelling home in the dark. He said it was not until 3 p.m. that all students were able to get home, despite schools closing at 11:30 a.m.
The heaviest snowfall recorded by Environment Canada fell from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Numerous advisories were issued throughout the day by the RNC and RCMP telling drivers to stay off the TCH. Traffic was heavily backed up at times, with a least one report coming through of a vehicle being abandoned and blocking traffic as a result.
The timing of the snowstorm created problems for city crews, as the late closure of businesses and schools resulted in heavy traffic for snowplows to contend with, according to director of public works Paul Mackey.
“It’s slowing down our operation big time,” Mackey told The Telegram.
He expected issues would persist throughout the evening, with warming weather and strong winds creating snowdrifts. This would force snowclearing crews to go over some sections of the city multiple times.
One city plow went off the road on Forest Pond Road in Goulds, but Mackey said it was a minor incident. A plow also reportedly fell into a ditch in Paradise.
Residents of the Avalon Peninsula have more rough winter weather to look forward to later in the week. Another weather system is on Environment Canada’s radar for the weekend.
Meteorologist Herb Thoms said it’s hard at this point to predict what sort of precipitation amounts can be expected, but he said there will be a lot of wind with snow and blowing snow. The winds and precipitation are expected to start Friday evening and continue through Saturday.