Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lessons from the Storm

Just when I thought we were passed the prospect of a snow closing, the wind struck last week. It was certainly one of the worst power failures that I have experienced since coming to Gaston Day ten years ago, and it shut down the school for two days. Every new situation provides valuable lessons, and this one was no different. First of all, we learned that it is very difficult to communicate when you lack electricity. I arrived at school at about 5 am on Tuesday morning, hoping that there would be no power outage at school. Obviously, those hopes proved false.

How do you communicate with parents when phones and E-mails don't work? The answer is cell phones. We did our best to get the message out, relying on word of mouth and the power of cell phones to spread the news. Regrettably, we had about twenty families that did not get the message and showed up for school. All in all, however, we were pleased that the vast majority of our families received the school-closing alert on such short notice and with our standard means of communication shut down. Kristin Paxton-Shaw, Director of Public Relations, will be developing a cell-phone calling tree plan for similar situations in the future. She also is looking at some systems that are automated and broadcast news to cell phones from a central source.

The second lesson learned is that there may be cost-effective ways to install platforms for generators that could have had the school up and running on the second day we missed. Installing permanent generators would be too expensive. But with some reasonable preparation, we can have the infrastructure in place to bring in rented generators if this happens again. We are very interested in exploring this improvement. How many years will it be before we have an ice storm or a wind storm that knocks out power at Gaston Day? Who knows? But eventually it will happen.

We also realized that certain precautions that Bob Larkin, Director of Technology, has taken over the last 18 months really paid off. We have placed over 50% of all our computers and file servers on UPS equipment (battery backup), moved our E-mail services to an offsite facility, and consolidated all school and financial information at a site in Boston. These changes were made to simplify our technology infrastructue and allow for the continued operation of our school. This meant the school returned back to normal quickly and with minimal damage to our computers and systems when the power was restored at 9 pm, Wednesday, April 6th.

Finally, although we could never have anticiapted this, I am confident that many of the trees, recently cut down for the new driveway, would have blown down in this storm and created a major mess. The lesson here is that sometimes our decisions have unintentional, fortunate consequences.

On a personal note, I cannot stand for school to be closed when we are scheduled to be opened! When Gaston Day School is forced to close due to inclement weather or power failures, the school administration's entire focus becomes getting school open again as quickly as possible, while ensuring the safety and well being of our students. Our business is educating children: it is a serious task, and the less school we miss, the more our students learn. It is so good to be back at school!