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Schools criticized for decision to open despite snow

, and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Decision to keep schools open criticized.

Three Anne Arundel County students were injured on their way to school Tuesday as the first snow of the season spread chaos on roads across the region, causing buses to spin out of control and commuters to spend hours creeping toward work.

Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County were the only area school systems to open Tuesday. By late afternoon, after being pelted by criticism from angry parents and staff, their superintendents apologized for the problems that opening schools had created.

"I'm sorry the morning turned out the way it did," Anne Arundel Superintendent George Arlotto said. "In the end, the decision was mine, and if I had the same information at 4:45 that I had at 9:30 this morning, I would have made a different decision."

The storm was modest, but it appeared at just the wrong time for the school officials who have to decide whether to open, and for motorists on their way to work.

Hundreds of accidents were reported. Drivers wondered why a few inches of precipitation weren't cleared more quickly; highway crews said the morning rush hour complicated their efforts to respond.

Seventeen-year-old twins who attend Northeast High School in Pasadena were going to school Tuesday morning in a sport utility vehicle when it crashed into a tree off Edwin Raynor Boulevard at Countryside Drive. Aaron Woody, the driver, was trapped for 20 minutes; Taylor Woody, his sister, was trapped for an hour.

They were taken to University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center but were home in fair condition by evening.

A 15-year-old student at Glen Burnie High School fell while crossing Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard and was struck by a slow-moving vehicle. She was taken to the Baltimore Washington Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries.

Arlotto said he was "sick over" the students' injuries.

Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he wanted to "apologize to the students, families, and staff members who experienced difficult travel conditions this morning, but I also want to thank the thousands of teachers, school leaders, and students who attended today for their commitment to teaching and learning."

Thornton, who took the helm of city schools in July, said in a statement that school officials considered weather conditions and the forecast, conferred with city officials and decided to open.

On days in which the forecast is "mixed," he said, making a decision is challenging.

"I understand and share the entire community's concern for the safety of our students," Thornton said. "Parents and guardians can be assured that the decision to open or close schools on inclement weather days is not one that I take lightly."

Baltimore schools spokeswoman Edie House said officials reported seven weather-related bus accidents and one accident involving a taxi. She said none of the buses were carrying students and there were no injuries.

Baltimore police said they responded to 68 vehicle crashes from midnight to 5 p.m., some of them related to the weather.

Parents criticized officials who chose to open schools Tuesday.

"It's ridiculous that Anne Arundel County would put children's lives in danger," said April Davila of Ferndale, who has two children at North County High School and another at Lindale Middle School. "The streets are terrible."

Melissa Schober, the mother of a first-grader at Creative City Public Charter School in Baltimore, said their usual 20-minute drive to school and back took an hour on the slippery roads.

She said main roads between Charles Village and Park Heights were not plowed.

"The roads are a mess. I have no idea how kids made it to school," she said. "If you can't clear the roads, then you shouldn't expect the parents to take [children] to school."

It wasn't just public school parents who second-guessed officials. Archbishop Spalding High School, a Catholic school that has followed the snow-day decisions of the Anne Arundel public schools, announced on its Facebook page that it would start making its own decisions after the safety of its staff and students had been "jeopardized."

What happened on Anne Arundel roads Tuesday morning was the kind of stuff that makes administrators pace the floors. The county transports 55,000 children to school on buses every day. In Baltimore, the number is 72,000.

Jim Mitcherling, director of transportation for Baltimore County Public Schools — which closed Tuesday — said nearly every system follows the same process, and they often confer with one another.

By 3 a.m. on a potential snow day, school officials send transportation employees to different parts of the district to scout roads and call in observations. Mitcherling said he checks with three weather services and speaks to at least one meteorologist to find out what predictions indicate, and whether snow has started to fall.

Then he calls systems in surrounding counties to ask what they are seeing on their roads and what they are likely to do. Mitcherling and his counterparts in other jurisdictions finally call their superintendents with recommendations on whether to close, delay or open schools.

In Anne Arundel, that decision is made at 4:45 a.m., schools spokesman Bob Mosier said. There is a 20-minute window when buses can be recalled, he said, but after that they must continue on their routes or risk leaving students stranded on street corners.

First pickups in Arundel are by 5:45 a.m., and high schools begin classes at 7:17 a.m. Mosier said officials thought the least experienced drivers would be off the roads by 7 a.m. before much snow arrived. If they delayed opening two hours, he said, young drivers would have been caught in rush hour.

"As the weather pattern changed, we got caught in this conundrum. Morning weather events are terrible for school systems," Mosier said.

In Baltimore County, Mitcherling said, officials can make the decision as late as 5 a.m.

By that time Tuesday, scouts were reporting snow in the Reisterstown area. He recommended a two-hour delay, which would give the system time to know whether the storm was a dud or a problem. As conditions deteriorated, officials decided at 6 a.m. to close schools.

The accident involving the Woodys is still being investigated, police Lt. T.J. Smith said, but signs point to weather as a major factor.

The girl appeared to have life-threatening injuries when emergency crews first arrived, but her condition stabilized when she got to the hospital.

Wendy Woody, the twins' mother, said Tuesday evening, "They are home, they are alive and we as a family are dealing with this together."

Reporters Kevin Rector, E.B. Furgurson III and Kelcie Pegher contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

joe.burris@baltsun.com

krector@baltsun.com

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