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Snowdrifts by emergency exits prompt school safety concerns in West Fargo

Jeff Goebel, director of buildings and grounds for West Fargo Public Schools, checks Wednesday, Jan. 2, on a parent’s concern of snow in front of Door 4 of Aurora Elementary School in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

WEST FARGO — With classes back in session after the holidays, heaping drifts of snow outside emergency exits at schools here are creating work for district staff and causing concern about student safety.

Sara Schroeder, mother of an Aurora Elementary student, says she's called the West Fargo Fire Department the past three years complaining about large snowdrifts by emergency exits at the school at 3420 9th St. W.

"This morning when school started, the drift was super high on door four and five," she said Wednesday, Jan. 2, adding that her backyard abuts the school that is largely out in the open and susceptible to snowdrifts.

West Fargo School District's buildings and grounds director, Jeff Goebel, said there's been some difficulty catching up with snow removal after the recent storms. There are 20 buildings across the district, and any exit on the south or west side was especially impacted by snow over the break.

Goebel said it's been a few years since a storm has posed this much difficulty, adding that an extra day to clear buildings before the break ends "would allow us to do a better job of being ready."

With seven pieces of snow removal equipment for dozens of emergency exits, "it's a matter of how fast we can get it done," Goebel said. For large snowdrifts — some are a foot from the top of the door — only a large snowblower on a tractor will do the job, and the district only has four of them, he said.

At West Fargo's junior and senior high schools, Goebel said the gymnasiums alone have six emergency exits.

The door at Aurora that Schroeder complained about takes about an hour to clear, Goebel said, and there are about 15 other emergency exits in the district with snowdrifts just as large.

But Goebel said the door at Aurora can still open even though the drift appears to be blocking it.

Assistant Chief Dell Sprecher of the West Fargo Fire Department said it's not a fire code violation if a door can be opened and students can crawl over the snowdrift. But it is a violation if snow is blocking a door.

Upon visiting Aurora Elementary with Goebel, Sprecher confirmed the doors did open. He's not aware of any doors in the district that can't be opened due to snowdrifts.

Last year when Schroeder complained, she watched as the door at Aurora was cleared within 30 minutes. But that wasn't the case this year. She said the snowdrift wasn't removed until after school ended Wednesday.

"As a parent with a child that goes there, that's ridiculous. The kids' safety should come first," she said. "Before school can open, those doors — they should have to be clear."

She said that as an at-home child care provider, she would get a correction order if she went against fire codes. "Why does the school get to operate all day having the snowdrifts that high with 500-plus students inside?" she said.

Sprecher said Goebel's department has been short on help during the holiday season, but "the school district is going to have to make adjustments in personnel" to ensure doors are cleared of snow when students return to school from breaks in the future.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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