A long ride home: School community shocked after snowstorm causes excruciating Thursday commute

Samuel Singer and Nishtha Sharma

Students experienced nightmarishly long commutes home from school last Thursday as a snowstorm caused heavy delays in the face of unpredicted high levels of snow,  and accidents across major highways.

The longest time students spent on buses was about 12 hours, leaving some students to arrive home well after 4:00 am, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly said.

On the Bus 440 Bronx route Sandhya Shyam (12) faced perhaps the most traumatic commute in her life, she said. She left her bus around 11:30 in light of monstrous traffic and walked over a mile on icy roads in sneakers to reach her friends’ parents’ car, arriving home after 1:00 am despite living in the same borough as the school, she said. “We were slipping and struggling as cars were honking at us for about 20-30 minutes.”

Rhea Patel (9), normally takes the bus home to Closter, NJ in less than an hour. On Thursday, she arrived home at about 11:30 PM. “The bus ride made me go insane because we had no food or water and ended up getting a flat tire,” she said.

Eventually, the flat tire was fixed by the bus driver, who was also a mechanic, but it was slow and added another hour to the commute, Patel said.

Even though the school cancelled all after-school activities, some buses arrived over an hour past the end of the school day, Kelly said. Buses that arrived were told to remain on Tibbett Avenue and not leave school property, he said.

“Things were a little weird from the start,” Hannah Long (12) said. “Our bus arrived almost 20 minutes late, and ever after we got on, wasn’t moving,” Long said. The bus remained at the school for over an hour, puzzling all of the students on the bus, she said.

“Kelly and I stayed together the entire night to make the important decisions surrounding transportation safety,” Director of Transportation Robert Forcelli said. “We decided that some of the remaining buses shouldn’t leave HM because of the dangerous road conditions and imminent accidents,” he said.

In line with preventing buses from departing the school in unsafe conditions, “some of the buses that had already left were told to let students return to school because of the perils of driving in these conditions,” Kelly said. “We worried about some drivers who were shaking and cracking down in the pressure of that dangerous driving,” he said.

Long and the other students on her bus were allowed to depart the bus with parental permission after being delayed at the school so she opted to take the subway, she said. This course of action was permitted by school security due to the expectation that delays would continue, she said,

However, Long was  also unsure of the subway’s safety. “I was afraid of slipping while walking down the hill and was also was worried that the tracks might have been slippery due to the snow, which would’ve caused delays.”

“We only let students leave after clear parental permission and making sure that they had a safe and effective way home,” Forcelli said.

Kareena Gupta (10) took the subway from a stop on her bus ride back to the school after seeing the conditions of road travel. “It was just too icy and nothing was being plowed; I simply didn’t feel safe traveling on the road,” she said.

Ishaan Kannan (11), who got home by car, said that “it was terrifying to see the cars and terrible crashes on the side of the road.”

“One sixteen wheeler’s wheels were burning and it kept slipping back, making me fear it would hit us and light the car on fire,” Kannan said.

Naina Mehrotra (6) remained trapped in icy conditions until around 6:30 pm despite taking the 3:15 bus, which was atypical for her, she said.

Other students, such as Gibby Thomas (12) was forced to remain on campus until 8 pm after her mother spent nearly four hours in traffic on a route that would usually take her 20-30 minutes, she said.

While Thomas was comfortable at school, she was worried about her peers’ safety. “I had a few who were driving themselves and it was hard for even adults to maneuver,” she said.

To pass time, Thomas and other students engaged in activities such as Skribbl.io, an online multiplayer game, she said. The school played movies  for younger students, while older students relaxed, worked s in the StuPub and Student Lounge, and were given iPhone chargers, Kelly said.

Some faculty members, including Middle Division French teacher Karla Toledano even stayed on campus to assist students who could not get home until late into the night or slept at the school. “Not only did I have no way home, but I felt that it was important to help the students still at school,” Toledano said.

Registrar Chris Garrison and Director of Enrollment Management Lisa Moreira P’19 P’21 both also stayed at school to help keep students calm. “It’s more important that I stayed a bit later and helped students remain relaxed and organized than left in possibly unsafe weather,” Garrison said.

Kelly thanked all of the faculty members that stayed on campus for extended periods of time in a written statement to The Record. “In this instance, I will be forever grateful for the extra efforts of members of the faculty and staff who touched base to see if additional supervision was necessary,” he said.

Some  students were forced to spend the night on campus or at their peers’ houses in Riverdale.

“A friend of my daughter’s had to stay at our house in Riverdale overnight,” Lower Division psychologist Dr. Nicole Zissu said. “Even though it was a bit awkward, neither his mom nor me felt comfortable with him Ubering home in the terrible road conditions,” she said.

At about 8:00 PM, Kelly emailed the school community, including parents, students, and faculty, postponing all students’ homework and assessments. He then sent an urgent email just an hour later at 9:13 with a procedure for students on buses to ensure comfortable bathroom access for all students, especially those in the Middle Division, he said.

At around 9:30 pm, Kelly emailed parents, students, and faculty announcing school would be closed the next day. “Having already eliminated homework and assessments, and knowing the number of students who were most likely going to be on the road well past midnight, it made sense to eliminate the possibility and/or pressure of needing to attend school on Friday,” he said.

“Our major concern was the safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said.

Amidst all the troubles students experienced, Kelly is proud of how they handled the situation, he said. “Our Upper Division students should be commended for knowing when and how to take charge… Out of a very difficult night came some wonderful stories of camaraderie and leadership.”

Dr. Levenstein was “blown away” by the stories she heard of the school students helping each other. “From escorting younger students on the subway and to their homes, to modeling calm on stuck buses, the HM student body showed itself to be unbelievably caring and compassionate,” she said.

In what was described by Dean of Students Dr. Susan Delanty ‘79 as an “act of kindness to share,” Jackson Steinbaugh (12), along with Eli Laufer (12), Ella Anthony (11), and Marli Katz (11), “herded 30 middle schoolers, some of which have never taken the subway alone, onto the 1 train.”

One day after the incident, The Record opened a Google survey where all students from the Middle and Upper Division could share their experiences from the transportation mishaps.

“I was very scared and nervous to take the subway for the first time but generous upperclassmen took care of me and calmed me down,” Molly Zukerman (6) said in response to the survey.

“The Middle Division kids were the priority,” Shyam said. “They were the ones put off and scared, as this was a traumatic experience for them,…so we were all just trying to look out for each other.”

The School responded to this event in both preventative and self-calming ways. The Lower Division faculty gave hot breakfasts to all bus drivers on Thursday to thank them for their service during the stressful snowstorm, Forcelli said. “We can only imagine what it was like to be one of those bus drivers in the dangerous storm,” he said.

“I received a delicious breakfast from Horace Mann as well as a $40 gift card from Riverdale,” Scarsdale Union Free School District bus driver Jean Emile said. “It felt nice to finally feel appreciated after risking my life in that storm,” he said.

Students also founded a new Horace Mann Possible Snow Day Indicator (HMPSDI) on Instagram as a result of the storm, to replace the one previously run by now-retired Registrar Mitch Francis, Gupta said.

In order to prevent such an event from occurring in the future, the school plans to take certain measures, Kelly said. These  will include meeting with bus companies in order to discuss installing emergency yellow buckets on each bus and ensuring that the school is knowledgeable of the latest bus routes, has reviewed each company’s protocols for such events, and looks at options for parents and students to communicate more readily, he said.