I was up at 4 am anticipating powerful winds to blow through Georgia this morning. My meteorology colleagues and I started sounding the alarm that Tropical Storm Zeta would bring 40 to 70 mph wind gusts to the state. While it is rare to have a tropical storm in Georgia, it was pretty evident that we were going to have a pretty rough Thursday morning in the Peach State. Many school systems in the area, to their credit, started announcing plans the previous day while others made calls on the morning of October 29th. Many systems opted for digital learning. With the COVID-19 era, this is now a viable option; however, it is still not always the best option. The “Tropical Storm Zeta” scenario is one of them.
At the time of writing, the website Poweroutage.us is reporting over 1 million customers without power in Georgia. Through my personal social media accounts, I am hearing accounts of students and parents driving to places that have power so that kids can “log on” for school. Unfortunately, many students and parents may not have that option. Other parents were tweeting that they were waiting to hear if their school system was planning to cancel the “digital learning” option for the day.
Weather warnings are sufficient to make decisions in advance. The “we’ll wait and see what happens” is no longer a defensible plan of action. The National Weather Service – Atlanta posted the graphic below on October 28th, 2020. It shows a clear indication of widespread tropical storm force wind (40 to 70 mph) gusts. In Georgia, those types of winds coupled with wet soil will lead to widespread power outages as we are currently experiencing. Unbelievably, people started complaining about pre-emptive cancellation announcements. On the other hand, I would be willing to wager that someone will say “they didn’t know this was going to happen” or “they didn’t expect it to be this bad.” We knew it was going to happen and be this bad.
I commend school systems for taking pre-emptive actions. Digital learning days are now in the toolkit for school systems and have been for many places prior to the pandemic. However, I also urge them to consider more nuances in weather-based decision-making. It was absolutely the right call in our jurisdictions to keep people off the roads and out of bus stops as Tropical Storm Zeta blew through Georgia. However, the sheer volume of homes without power makes digital learning inaccessible for many studies.
Predictive modeling of weather related power outages have advanced significantly in recent years. My colleague Steve Quiring at Ohio State University is pioneering research in this area, for example. Institutions will have to start looking to these predictive models with the same level of confidence as they do with our weather models. It is another “tool” in the box. Digital learning is clearly here to stay and will continue to change how our kids are educated. However, it probably cannot always be the “cure all” for significant weather events that cause power outages.