Early decisions lead to a sunny snow day for students

Forced to make a choice by 6 a.m., some schools play it safe, cancel class

February 26, 2005|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN STAFF

With temperatures in the low 30s and sunny skies, yesterday shaped up as a nice day to play hooky. Fortunately, most Baltimore-area students didn't have to do that, because public schools were closed.

The roads looked clear for the morning commute, and the weather grew progressively more pleasant as the day went on, but school administrators faced a different picture in the hours before dawn, when they had to decide whether to cancel classes. Conditions then did not look good, or at least not good enough.

Area colleges and some private schools were open, however, in some cases with delayed start times.

"It's simply the fact that the storm continued and really did not end until early morning," said Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the Baltimore school system, of the decision to close city schools. She said the snow did not end soon enough to give workers a chance to clear sidewalks and parking lots.

Between 4 inches and 8 inches of snow fell on the city and surrounding counties by yesterday morning, with light snow continuing in some areas into morning rush hour. City, state and county public works officials said they had main and some secondary roads cleared for the morning commute, but too late for school administrators, who have only until about 6 a.m. to decide whether to open schools.

David Fidler, spokesman for the Baltimore County Department of Public Works, said the snow cleanup went well, and he was surprised to learn schools had been closed.

School officials, however, were not taking chances.

Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon said that when it came time to make the decision, some roads in the county were still treacherous and some school parking lots and pathways had not been cleared.

"We're not going to open unless we can have a safe and smooth opening that won't present a hazard to students or staff," Herndon said. "Not all the pieces were in place."

There are a few pieces to the puzzle, all of which must sorted out overnight: weather reports and accounts of road conditions from road crews, local and state police and school administrators, who drive the roads for a close look.

Glenn Johnson, transportation director for Howard County schools, said he was at his home computer about 3 a.m. yesterday, checking temperature reports from weather stations at 20 local schools. By 3:30 a.m. -- without the benefit of coffee -- he was in his Chevy Blazer for a driving tour of central Howard County: Clarksville to Glenwood to Dayton to Folly Quarter Road, and on to the school administration building.

By 5 a.m., he had his recommendation for Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin: no go.

In this school year's mild winter, Johnson said he has mostly been spared this drill.

"If you do it four, five days in a row, it can wear on you," Johnson said.

At the private Calvert School in North Baltimore, which opened one hour late, Joseph P. McGraw, the director of finance and operations, said he talked to his maintenance director at 5:30 in the morning to check on how things looked around the school. He decided to delay opening for an hour, but he made no judgments about public schools that closed for the day.

"We have different issues," said McGraw, noting that almost all of Calvert's 477 students are driven to school by their parents. "We don't have the problem with transportation. We've got a small area. I've got one school to worry about."

Sun staff writers Laura Loh and Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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