Even before most parents are up for their first cup of coffee, staff from the county school system's transportation department are driving the roads alongside county salt trucks, trying to determine if buses carrying some 45,000 students are safe to roll.
Officials use road conditions during those early morning hours to gauge whether schools should be closed. And that, said Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Ron Beckett, helps explain why county schools opened as scheduled yesterday -- only to close a few hours later.
All other counties in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area either closed or had late openings.
Beckett, who makes the school closing recommendations to Superintendent Larry Lorton, said his decision to favor opening on time was based on "a light dusting and clear roads this morning.
"We opened on time this morning because there wasn't enough snow to plow," Beckett said. "I've been doing this for eight years. I can promise that whatever we decide, to stay open or to close, we will get the same number of critical calls.
"We try to take all factors into consideration. Part of the problem is that in one part of the county we can have a lot of snow and the other part may get very little.
"Area transportation supervisors begin calling me at 4 a.m.," he said. "We're also talking to the county police and subscribe to the weather service. About 5:30 a.m., those people meet and confer and determine what we've got. Out of that comes a recommendation to the superintendent."
Beckett said he is equally concerned about the 20,000 students who do not catch school buses. He has heard complaints about students forced to walk in the streets after plows cover sidewalks with snow removed from the street.
"We've gotto be concerned about those students as well, and what the conditions will be for them," Beckett said.
He and Lorton, who is home with the flu, made the decision yesterday morning based on damp roads and little snow.
But Beckett said making similar decisions the remainder of the week, with snow forecast through Thursday, should be even tougher.
"The current storm is supposed to end tonight," Beckett said.
"We would anticipate schools will be open tomorrow and another storm following. We will track its progress and see what happens."
Despite a fiscally minded school system faced with an $8 million deficit, budget officer Jack White said the decision to close schools early is based strictly on student safety.
On any given day, the county pays $81,000 in transportation costs.
Any day that extends past noon counts as a full day as far as the bus contractors are concerned, Beckett said.