January 09, 2017

'Snow angel' educators keep children safe in West Seneca

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
west seneca snowstorm
Caption: "Welcome to West Elementary." A screenshot from video by TWC News - Buffalo.

A 6-year-old boy or girl is, on average, 45 inches tall — no match for the hefty snow — all 26 inches of it — that fell in just three hours in West Seneca.

The young students, and those bigger and stronger than 6-year-olds, were unable to leave school last Thursday afternoon. The snow fell so powerfully and unexpectedly drivers got stuck in their vehicles. Buses could not get out of the school parking lots.

With a wallop, the storm stranded students and educators alike inside Allendale and West Elementary schools. While the snow flung itself into drifts and piles, faculty and staff became snow angels, staying past sunset, past dinner, beyond the midnight hour, and deep into the dark hours of early morning. They fed the students, played games with them, kept them warm, and watched movies with them. They stayed until the roads were cleared and every child could be picked up or brought home. The last little one left at 3:30 a.m.

“They had hundreds of little kids who could’ve been terrified,” said Joe Cantafio, president of the 530-member West Seneca Teachers Association, Inc. in Western New York.

While Cantafio would like his members to make the news for more than just snow, he knows deep down — as deep as a snowdrift — they already do.

Teachers in this local union, along with aides and assistants, CSEA brothers and sisters who work as bus drivers, custodian and cafeteria staff, together with administrators, made what Cantafio called “superhero” efforts to keep their students safe, warm, fed and worry-free as the snow inched up outside the elementary school windows faster than a freight train running behind schedule.

Yet, more heroes were to come.

Cantafio is a social studies teacher at the high school, which has an earlier release time than the elementary schools. He was already home when the snow started falling. At 1:30 p.m., Superintendent Mark Crawford alerted Cantafio that after-school activities would be cancelled. Three to six inches of snow were predicted. “There was not a drop of snow out there,” Cantafio said. “By 2:30 p.m. it was like a blizzard outside.”

After the road he lives on was cleared by plows at 10:30 p.m., Cantafio sent a group message to his union members asking if anyone was able to help shovel out the cars of the educators who were still inside the two schools with their young students.

When Cantafio and his three sons pulled into one school’s parking lot they were stunned by the task in front of them. Cars were invisible under the white, rounded mounds.

Twenty teachers, a few with kids or a spouse in tow, arrived with brushes, brooms, shovels and snow blowers. They worked from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. to free the cars belonging to the educators still inside watching over children.

“In three hours time we were able to shovel out 60 cars,” he said. Neighbors and school grounds people also came to help,

School was closed the following day.

This was not West Seneca’s first brush with pell-mell snowfall. In one month in 2014, which Cantafio has dubbed “Snowvember,” a 6-foot snowstorm closed schools and damaged houses and businesses, leaving people trapped inside their homes for days. Money was raised through the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund to help teachers whose homes were damaged by several feet of snow followed by ravaging rains.

'Super Heroes'