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To close schools, or not to close?

In the early-morning hours of a snowstorm, David Drown will make a decision that will have a ripple effect on all of Howard County: the decision whether to close schools.

Like other school officials in the region, he'll wake up about 3 a.m. to check weather reports, test-drive county roads or simply toe his front yard to determine whether the conditions are safe for students. Drown, the director of transportation for the Howard County public school system, will forward his decision up the chain, where it will be approved or rejected by the superintendent and broadcast on local television and radio stations.

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The fallout is swift.

Because many private and public employers and organizations peg their snow policies to whatever the local school system decides, the conclusions of Drown and his counterparts around the area soon reverberate into days off or late arrivals for everything from Catholic school students, to jurors and factory workers.

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Church activities, dance lessons, and Scouting meetings from Annapolis to Bel Air are canceled. On the flip side - depending on the severity of the weather - businesses look for a windfall as parents seek to entertain their children.

"A lot is tied into what the school system does," said Drown. "It's not just the school system and school operations that's affected by the decision."

Forecasters are predicting that the Baltimore region could see the first significant snowfall of the season. The biggest worries for today and tonight as the storm barrels through will be ice, slippery travel conditions and power outages.

After an inch of snow this morning, more than a quarter-inch of ice could accumulate by tonight as the storm draws in moisture from the Gulf and the Atlantic and drops it through a stubborn layer of sub-freezing air near the surface.

"There will certainly be a period when it will be snow, a couple inches accumulation before it changes over," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist at Penn State Weather Communications. Then, he said, "I think you're going to go over to sleet and freezing rain. I'm less confident you'll go all the way to rain itself."

If the schools open late, Chuck Wetherington's employees can take a little more time getting to the office. His Hanover-based company, BTE Technologies, ties its attendance policy to the local school systems in the case of delayed openings.

"We match the school delays of one or two hours, but we do not automatically match cancellations," Wetherington, president of the company, said.

The domino effect also hits the court system. Though the administrative judges at Circuit and District courts make independent decisions and take great pains to remain open, jurors don't have to report if the schools are closed and may report late if classes are delayed.

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Judge John G. Turnbull II, chief of Baltimore County's Circuit Court, said they try to close the courts as infrequently as possible, given the headache of rescheduling all the hearings and trials that get postponed. Criminal clerks quickly comb through all postponed cases after a snow day, the judge said, making sure that hearings are reset before the deadline established to protect the defendants' right to a speedy trial.

"We don't close unless it's absolutely necessary," Turnbull said.

It's up to Maryland's Department of Transportation to decide if the state's thousands of workers get a snow day, however. The department decides whether roads are driveable then delivers an opinion to the secretary of budget and management, who decides whether to let workers stay home.

"It rarely happens," says Robin Sabatini, assistant to the secretary.

The state's legislators and those who staff the General Assembly have even less chance of a day off. The legislature's weather policy states: The General Assembly "does not close for inclement weather."

Other organizations have decided to follow school systems - to a point.

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Notre Dame Prep, a private Catholic school in Towson, follows Baltimore County's policy for the first two days of closures. But not on the third day.

"By the third day, a system like Baltimore County has to consider hundreds of schools for a wide geographic region and make decisions for people over a vast region," said Sister Patricia McCarron, the school's headmistress. "There may be areas that prohibit them from opening because of bus routes or side routes that have nothing to do with where our girls come from."

Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium decided two years ago to adopt a liberal leave policy for staff and a wait-and-see approach for its ministries instead of tying their status to the local school system.

"The Baltimore County school system closes for a variety of reasons, some of which really didn't apply to us," said Tim Chase, director of church operations at Grace Fellowship. "Our staff would literally come in anyway [if conditions weren't terribly bad], so our policy reflected what was happening. If we can open, we will."

For their part, the school system's decision-makers say the tangential effects have no bearing on their decision.

"If other people want to piggyback on our decision, that's fine," said H. Winship Wheatley, the transportation director for Anne Arundel County schools.

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The school administrators are "kind of the leaders in the decision-making in the morning," said Diane Wilfong, manager of the drop-in child care area at Quest Fitness in Ellicott City. She said most parents do not choose to pack up their kids and try out the bad roads in order to exercise, sometimes prompting the closure of the child care component.

As schools close, the demand on Catherine Double's Wonderland Children's Center in Westminster only goes up as parents who still have to go to work scramble to find daylong accommodations. Double and her staff are ready with hot chocolate and movies for potentially more than 60 children.

"We kinda go into overdrive," Double said.

Unless roads are particularly treacherous, snow days are good for some businesses. The hardware stores and supermarkets are flooded with customers stocking up, to the movie theaters, bowling alleys and shopping malls fill with people looking for things to do.

"We do not mind the snow here," said Scott deGraffenreid, the marketing director at Westfield Annapolis mall. "A lot of times, [the snow is] not quite what it's made out to be, and schools will close anyway. That really increases the traffic."justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Frank Roylance, Sandy Alexander and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.


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