After a school bus carrying 24 students slid off a snowy Moretown road, it took school officials more than a day to paint a full picture of what happened and the severity of the accident.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, at about 7:20 a.m., a Harwood Union school bus slid off a steep section of Moretown Common Road. The rear of the bus was off the road in a drop-off, its undercarriage resting on the roadbank and its front tires inches off the ground.
All 25 occupants — the 24 students and the driver — were fine, and the students made it to Moretown Elementary School a little more than an hour later, but what outraged parents was how they heard about the severity of the incident. An email to parents from Brigid Nease, school superintendent, said the bus slid off the road into a ditch and had to be towed out, but parents thought that minimized the incident. Stories from students on board were more severe, and a photo of the ditched bus was circulating around the internet.
It was snowing hard last Thursday, but the buses were running on their usual schedule. While one bus route was delayed — waiting for the road ahead to be sanded — another bus lost traction while climbing a hill on Moretown Common, then slid backward and over the road bank, its rear end extending into a drop-off.
Police and Moretown’s fire department and road crew were called to assist 30 minutes after the slide. A half-hour later, Moretown Elementary School Principal Mandy Couturier sent an email to all parents, saying two buses were arriving late, and at 3:10 p.m. Nease sent an email to parents.
Nease said the bus driver “called in to report he was off the road and had slid into a ditch. All our safety protocols were followed,” adding that the tire tread was adequate, and the driver didn’t seem to be at fault. Nease said later in a press release that she didn’t know the severity of the accident when she wrote that first email.
After seeing photos of the bus hanging off the road on social media, “my stomach dropped,” Nease said. “Obviously, this was hardly a ‘bus stuck in a ditch.’ If we had the correct information, of course we would have communicated with parents and staff very differently.”
She wrote the first email based on a report she received at 2:35 p.m. from First Student, the district’s bus provider, and said it failed to communicate the severity of the accident.
Jennifer Mitchell, manager at First Student, acknowledged the problem in an email to Nease and said there was a “definite breakdown in communication” that kept the district in the dark and First Student would address the issue.
Nease stood by her decision to follow the normal bus schedule on that snowy Thursday.
“Our district spans 42 miles from end to end and conditions can vary widely. Weather can change very quickly, squalls show up, and road conditions can vary. Neither a closure or delay was indicated based on the reports I had,” she said. A delayed opening would have subjected drivers to worse conditions, she said.
“Heavier snow was expected after 8, making midmorning the difficult time, and then to taper off in the afternoon. This was a very unfortunate accident that could happen anytime anywhere in a Vermont winter.”
Nease said she expects to receive full details, and a photo if possible, of any future incidents.