A snow day's judge and jury

Crews: While students sleep with their fingers crossed, school workers scour Anne Arundel County to decide if kids stay home or brave the winter weather.

January 18, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

It's 3 a.m., and most of Maryland is asleep beneath a blanket of fresh snow. For Winship Wheatley, it's time to get out of bed.

The transportation supervisor for Anne Arundel County's 117 public schools throws on his clothes without waking his wife, switches on the Weather Channel and puts on a pot of coffee.

At this "moment between sleep and awake," as Wheatley calls it, the happiness of countless students hangs in the balance.

Will today be a snow day?

Thursday night's storm is over. In the few hours before schools are scheduled to open their doors, Wheatley and dozens of transportation officials across the state will scout bus routes and campus parking lots.

They will negotiate tricky curves to see whether cars are likely to skid off the road. They will stomp around on sidewalks near elementary schools to test for treacherous ice.

And they will decide whether to recommend schools close for the day or simply open late to give road crews and daytime temperatures a chance to clear the snow.

It's 3:30 a.m. when Wheatley shuts the door of his cozy Annapolis house. He points out the full moon on one side of the cloudless sky and the planet Venus, shining brightly on the other. "I think the storm's a no-show," he says.

After scraping off the inch of snow that has fallen on his blue county-issue Chevrolet Impala, Wheatley drives out on Spa Road toward Bates Middle School. He is on his way to more than a dozen schools in southern Anne Arundel County, and he has already dispatched a two-man crew to check on the central and northern regions.

Easy driving

By 3:40 a.m., he has reassured himself about the condition of state and county highways, which have been sprayed with salt and chemicals. "It's amazing how nice a job they've done here," he says. "Those guys have been out all night."

He pulls into the parking lot of Bates Middle and fishes under his seat for a two-way radio. His men report that driving conditions are similar in their regions.

"We've got plenty of time," he tells them. "Our mission is to make a recommendation by 4:55."

Wheatley leaves the school and drives gingerly around a corner on a residential street, trying to put himself in the mind of a bus driver. "Kids could be standing at this corner with a barrage of snowballs for the bus," he says.

So far, so good. There is plenty of traction and no evidence of ice. A bus driver probably could stand a snowball or two.

At 4:02 a.m., Wheatley drives into the lot of South River High School in Edgewater. He shakes his head as he looks at the snow-covered asphalt, the lines marking parking spots nowhere to be seen. "If there's one reason we do not operate today, it's because of this," he says. "Our concern is whether we have parking for all these people - teachers, staff, administrators, parents."

He fields a call on his cell phone from a transportation official in Prince George's County. They exchange information about neighboring counties. "Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's called me last night around 11 and said they are closing," Wheatley tells his colleague.

By 4:09 a.m., Wheatley is heading deeper south on Solomon's Island Road to see the damage done there by the storm, which came from the southwest. "We'll have an idea of whether the storm was consistent throughout the county," he says.

Southern High School, the county's southernmost school, is likely to have sustained the worst of the storm, and its condition will be a large factor in Wheatley's decision.

The roads around Southern High are clean and free of ice. "I'm thinking our issues are going to be our sidewalks and parking lot areas," he says into the radio. His crew members agree.

Reason to celebrate

At 4:20 a.m., he phones into a weather update service. "The snow has ended," a cheerful voice tells him.

"Yes!" Wheatley exclaims. He does a little jig in his seat. The possibility of a snow day begins to look remote.

It's time to rouse Ed Almes, maintenance supervisor for the schools. "Hey, buddy," Wheatley says. "You all have anybody in motion for this morning?"

Almes, sounding groggy from sleep, replies in the negative. He did, however, take the precaution of loading his maintenance trucks with de-icing chemicals last night.

The two men commiserate. They know they will have to hustle for the next five hours to get schools ready for a two-hour delayed opening.

"Ed, if we had had another inch of snow, we wouldn't have this issue," Wheatley says. "Yeah, I know," Almes replies.

The next incoming call, at 4:39 a.m., is from Howard County's transportation director, Glenn Johnson. School maintenance crews have been at work there for a few hours already, Johnson reports, and the county is considering opening on time.

"Oh, you all are tough," Wheatley says.

It's now 4:42 a.m., nearing deadline. Wheatley pulls into Lothian Elementary School. "Okay, fellas," he says into the radio. "We've got 15 minutes to assess whether we're going to recommend a two-hour delay."

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