What do parents do when there's a snow day, but no snow?
When local schools and child care centers close due to inclement weather, it often leaves parents scrambling for a back-up plan, especially when their kids have special needs.
Hamilton County Schools students have been out of class since Friday — that's five days, most of them pretty cold, for kids to start getting cabin fever.
No school also means no before or aftercare programs at school, and many community organizations close, as well.
When school was out Tuesday, Vivianne DeSmith-Smallpage of Chattanooga dropped her 2-year-old daughter off at Kids Rock but then turned right around when the child care facility closed early due to impending snow. On Wednesday, DeSmith-Smallpage had to stay home from work for another snow day.
"Today was challenging because I had a lot of things to get done at the office," she said. "I wish there were more ways for parents to have solutions. There are parents who cannot afford to stay home or miss work. If you don't have an option, you don't have anything you can do, though."
Many parents echoed DeSmith-Smallpage's thoughts. Some even turned to Facebook parent groups looking for sitters or recommendations.
Parents with special-needs students found the task of finding someone or somewhere to take their child even more daunting.
Kendra Patten of Ooltewah is the mother of five children. Her 3-year-old son has autism, and she says child care outside of regular school hours is a challenge year-round.
Patten's son attends Ooltewah Elementary special-needs preschool program — three of her other children are also students at Ooltewah — but the program doesn't offer before or after-school programs.
"I had to rethink my shift hours due to not being able to find child care," said Patten, who works as a nurse. "For some reason, finding a good, reliable sitter is really difficult."
With school out for the past two days, Patten has stayed home. For years, she even worked in telemedicine, as a nurse from home, due to the unpredictability of her children's' schedules.
"There's nothing you can do, if you don't have child care for your kids, then you can't work," she said.
Some have complained about schools being closed, especially with the arguably low amount of snow and bad weather the area has seen this week, but Patten felt that Hamilton County Schools has communicated well with parents.
"They've done a good job of notifying us early enough," Patten said.
Stephanie Hickey of Soddy-Daisy disagreed, however, saying schools needed to be more proactive.
"There should be a pre- emptive, just give a heads up [that] 'We might be closing tomorrow, so you need to make other arrangements for your children,'" said Hickey. "There needs to be more communication."
Either Hickey, a shift leader at Taco Bell, or her financé must take a day off from work when school is out and a relative can't watch their children — a 16-month-old son and a 4-year-old daughter with special needs.
"My finance had to call out work because of the ice. I called and said I would be late but they told me to stay home instead, so it worked out today," Hickey said. "I usually am trying and calling to ask any of my family members to watch the kids."
Some parents cannot afford to miss work, and if they don't have a relationship with a child care facility or family member who could watch them, they often end up bringing their kids to work.
Barrett Ashburn, a kindergartener at Boyd-Buchanan School, spent his "snow days" at his mother's practice. Jessica Ashburn, of Ringgold, Ga., works in Chattanooga as an occupational therapist.
"Work is really gracious in allowing me to leave and go and pick him up if I need to," Ashburn said. "I actually work with special-needs kids, so it works out on days that my son can't go to school he can actually work along with me."
Sometimes days in the office can be long for Barrett, though. Ashburn packs him a bag of activities and things to do, but sometimes her son wants more of her attention while she works, she said.
"It's definitely long days, he's a really good trooper," she said. Ashburn praised her manager for allowing children to come to work with their parents in such situations.
"We are mostly women here," she said. "My manager realizes that if I can't bring my child to work, the majority of us sometimes have our kids here, then we can't work If we're not here, she can't run her business."
Lana Bettinger of Chattanooga also took her son to work with her Wednesday.
Bettinger's 8-year-old son has autism, a sensory processing disorder and ADHD. Finding something to occupy his time while she heads the floral department at Food City in Rossville can be difficult. Most of the time, he passes the time playing games on a tablet.
"Luckily, I have an amazing manager who lets me bring him to work," Bettinger said. "I hate that he spends so much time on the tablet, but that's the world we live."
Bettinger wasn't surprised they canceled school.
"I've lived here long enough to know when they're going to close for inclement weather," Bettinger said. "If there's a single flurry down here in the valley, I know they are going to close it."
Hamilton County schools had closed due to inclement weather three times this academic year as of Wednesday. Snow days are not made up, unless an excessive number of days is missed. The district then looks to use professional development days to make up the missed class time, according to district spokesman Tim Hensley.
Hamilton County Schools officials assure parents they put a lot of thought into closing schools. The decision begins with National Weather Service reports and forecasts and advice from local and state emergency management officials, said Hensley.
District staff will also physically ride roads known to be trouble spots for buses, looking for ice and dangerous patches. Ultimately, Lee McDade, chief operations officer for Hamilton County Schools, makes a recommendation on whether or not to close schools to Superintendent Bryan Johnson.
"The first priority is safety of kids," Hensley said. "Can we get children to and from school safely in a day ... ultimately, we try to take into consideration parents and getting the information out there as quickly as we can."
Hensley encouraged families to have their own winter plans for what to do when schools are delayed or closed due to weather.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.