Area schools' decision to use snow day gets icy reception

The sun smiled on much of Maryland yesterday. The skies were blue. And from Westminster to Baltimore to Columbia, schoolchildren were enjoying another snow day.

More than half of the state's 24 school districts failed to open because officials feared hazardous conditions might materialize from an ice storm that never showed. A day that started with showers later turned downright pleasant.


And that left well-intentioned school officials being second-guessed by harried parents, who had to figure out what to do with the kids.

"It's just a rainy day," said Christine Zhang, whose two daughters trailed behind her as she ran errands yesterday morning in Columbia. "There's hardly any ice on the road."


But last night, it was a different story as wet or slushy roads glazed over in many areas. Ice was blamed for scores of accidents across Central Maryland - some resulting in minor injuries and extensive vehicle damage, police said.

Police in Annapolis reported numerous accidents, state police in Westminster said there were collisions "all over Carroll County," and a couple of state troopers were called back to duty after 12-hour shifts in Cecil County to help handle a spate of crashes.

Early in the day, it was fear of ice-related accidents and injuries that forced many superintendents to cancel school, a decision they may regret: Many have used all their allotted inclement-weather days and must find a way to make up the lost time.

Several districts have extended their school years, asked the state Board of Education for waivers in the number of days they must operate and considered holding classes on holidays - measures some parents said are ridiculous if brought on by yesterday's conditions.

Parents across Maryland found themselves taking time off from work to stay with their children and wondering what was so dangerous about rain.

"It was frustrating because I have a big deadline" coming up, said Cindy Ardinger, an Ellicott City attorney who had to stay home to keep an eye on her three children. Jim Mitchell, who also lives in Ellicott City, left work for a while as well to read to his children at the Columbia library while his wife was at an appointment.

And teachers, parents and children fretted about what they were missing. The 510 sixth-graders at Perry Hall Middle School missed their field trip to see Dance Asia, an acrobatics, martial arts and mime performance, at Goucher College. Assistant Principal Sharon Sacra was working yesterday to reschedule the trip.

"Erring on the side of caution" was the phrase of the day yesterday, tossed out by no fewer than four district officials. But parents chanted a different mantra, summed up by Bel Air mother Mary Kate Keesling: "I don't think kids have gone to school for a [full] week since school started."


"There's a lot of time they're missing," said Julie Di Virgilio, PTA president at Sparks Elementary School, who worries about the pressures on teachers to cover material for the Maryland School Assessment tests, which begin Feb. 25. "Are they going to fit everything in?"

But education officials said they had no crystal ball to help them determine if weather predictions, which suggested ice could coat roads during the day, would come true.

"When we made the decision to close schools, the forecast called for severe weather," said Baltimore schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt. "We had no way of knowing at the time that the weather would improve."

Most districts determine school-session status before the sun comes up so they can get the information to the news media and the public as soon as possible.

"There's blue sky right now, I can see a little," Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said at 4 p.m. But at 5 a.m., when he called off classes, the picture was a little different.

"The decision is made with the best information we have available," he said.


And elements that used to be requirements for such decisions - such as snow - no longer necessarily apply. Note the new trend: "Snow days" have been replaced by "inclement-weather days," as hurricanes, power outages caused by high winds and threats of ice storms descend upon Maryland.

"I refer to them as emergency closing days. I don't even link them to weather," O'Rourke said.

The Baltimore school system has closed five times, using up its allotted days, as has Baltimore County, which closed for the seventh time yesterday. Anne Arundel County, which was closed for a planned break yesterday, has shut down six times this school year, one more than planned, as has Howard County. Harford County has closed eight times, leaving one inclement-weather day. Carroll has shut down six times - two days more than it planned - and Montgomery County has not opened on five occasions.

Di Virgilio, the Sparks Elementary PTA president, said she hoped school districts would find ways to add the time during the year, rather than tacking it on in June, but it doesn't look promising. Howard and Montgomery counties have already extended their school years, and the only options for making the days up during the year are to use holidays or planned vacations, which often leads to high absenteeism.

Last year, Howard County shaved a day off of spring break to make up for one of the 10 days lost to weather, and only about half of the county's 47,000 students showed up. This year, board members are considering holding classes on Presidents Day, which is Feb. 16.

"We want to have a plan as soon as possible," said school board Chairman Courtney Watson.


In September, the Maryland Board of Education announced it would reduce a requirement that students attend classes for 180 days by one day: Sept. 19, which many districts lost because of Tropical Storm Isabel. But districts will likely ask for more than one-day waivers as winter wears on. Howard has requested two free days.

"We'll see them start to come in now that we're in February," said Bill Reinhard, State Department of Education spokesman.

"You never want to go out and ask for a waiver too soon," said Georgiana Maszczenski, who is in charge of Anne Arundel's academic calendar. Otherwise, districts might make multiple requests and it is better to have them go "up in one piece," she said.

Meanwhile, guess what weather forecasters are predicting for the end of the week?

More winter precipitation.

Sun staff writers Lane Harvey Brown, Mary Gail Hare, Laura Loh, Sara Neufeld, Tanika White, Richard Irwin and Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.


Snow days

Scoreboard of the region's inclement-weather days

School Days Days

District Planned Taken

Baltimore 5 5

Baltimore Co. 7 7


Arundel Co. 5 6

Howard County 5 6

Harford County 9 8

Carroll County 4 6