Snow days on the rise? A detailed look at every major D.C. area school district

This past winter was a fun one for kids and snow lovers alike. As local airports racked up snowfall by the foot, local school districts burned through snow days to the dismay of administrators everywhere. The frequency of school closures this winter sparked a debate both on social media and here on the Capital Weather Gang over a common question: do schools close more often now than they did “back in the day”?

I won’t leave you hanging – the answer is yes, but barely. School closings in the Washington D.C. area follow the seasonal snowfall at the three local airports pretty closely. The more snow that falls, the more often schools close. It makes sense.

Every major school district in the Washington D.C. area provided snow day information for this article. The districts that responded with detailed school closure data include:

• D.C. Public Schools (since Fall 2009)

• Prince George’s County, MD (since Fall 2003)

• Montgomery County, MD (since Fall 1999)

• Fairfax County, VA (since Fall 2009)

• Prince William County, VA (since Fall 1995)

• Loudoun County, VA (since Fall 1975)

• Fauquier County, VA (since Fall 1993)

For the purpose of this analysis, school closures that resulted from hurricanes, flooding, the August 2011 earthquake, and area-wide closures the day after September 11, 2001, were edited out of the data as much as possible to reflect only those cancellations directly related to winter weather.

First up is a look at the seasonal snowfall at National, Dulles, and BWI Airports dating back through the winter of 1984-1985

Data from National Weather Service. Chart by Dennis Mersereau.

Data from National Weather Service. Chart by Dennis Mersereau.

One immediately notices the major snowstorms that occurred in 1996, 2003, and 2009-10, and the snowless lulls that happened in between. Provided it doesn’t snow again, Dulles won (or lost?) this past winter with 52.8” of snow, National picked up an even 32”, and BWI saw a smidge over three feet with 39” of the white stuff.

Now here’s a look at the last five years of school closings in the D.C. area.

Chart by Dennis Merserau

Chart by Dennis Merserau

2009-2010 saw quite a few cancellations, but not as many as it could have since the first blockbuster storm that year hit in December fairly close to most districts’ winter breaks. The bust-of-a-winter in 2011-2012 saw almost no snow days with the exception of Prince William (1-23-2012, due to ice) and two days off in the predominately rural Fauquier County.

This winter’s closings perfectly illustrate the urban-suburban divide in the area. The farther you travel away from Washington, the snowier and less treated the roads get. D.C. proper saw just 6 snow days this winter while Fauquier had a whopping 17; the number of days off this school year grew almost exponentially with distance away from the District.

The three counties that cancel classes the most are Prince William, Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Prince William is the most populous of the three and arguably the most geographically diverse; the eastern half of the county is highly built-up while the western half is a mix of rural and suburban development. Fauquier County is still relatively rural and some areas are pretty far off the beaten path, and a growing Loudoun County (which lays claim to part of Dulles Airport) is often in the “sweet spot” for snowfall totals.

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

The chart above shows snow days in Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties dating back through the 1995-1996 school year, with each year’s snowfall totals as measured at Dulles Airport shown by the black line. Closings in Prince William and Fauquier closely follow the snowfall trend, with cancellations reaching the double-digits in the snowiest years (notably 2002-03, 2009-10, and this past winter). The only outlier is Fauquier County, which closes school fairly often most winters – holding the distinction of the only school district in the area to record a weather-related snow day in 2001-2002 – mostly due to its rural, hilly terrain.

Loudoun County provided closing data all the way back through the fall of 1975, which gives us a unique opportunity to see if children in Loudoun County today see more snow days than their parents did almost 40 years ago.

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

Loudoun County Public Schools closed for winter weather a total of 200 times between the fall of 1975 and April 2014, coming out to an average of around 5-6 cancellations per year. During the same 39-year period, Dulles Airport saw an average annual snowfall of just under 22”. Using a simple linear trendline, the snowfall at Dulles shows no upward or downward trend, while the number of times Loudoun cancels classes every year ticks up slightly with time over the past four decades.

The slight upward trend of Loudoun school closings is likely caused by the explosive suburbanization and the subsequent influx of traffic and people into the county. Loudoun’s population in 1980 was around 57,000, while its current population is pushing 350,000 and growing by almost 3% per year.

Even though Loudoun’s tendency to close increased by about one day over the four-decade period, it’s hardly the dramatic increase that many parents and observers make it out to be. For good measure, I charted Prince William County’s closing data the same way I charted Loudoun’s above.

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

Chart by Dennis Mersereau

The 19 years of data for Prince William County (PWC) shows a marked upward trend in the number of snow days between the mid-1990s and today, but the devil is in the details.

The school closing trend in PWC is heavily skewed because of the relatively small amount of data available and the cluster of high-impact events in the past 10 years. The Presidents’ Day Blizzard in February 2003 closed school for two weeks straight. Three to five inches of sleet that fell on Valentine’s Day 2007 froze solid into a plate of “glacial ice” in roads and parking lots, shuttering the county’s schools for four days. The back-to-back blizzards in 2009-2010 and major snowstorms seen in 2011 and this winter also closed school for extended periods of time. When compared to the relatively calm winters of the late 1990s, it throws off the trend.

Based purely off of the roughly two decades of data for Prince William County, school does close more often, but if more data were available it would more than likely nudge the trend down to the level seen in Loudoun County.

Overall, though, why does it seem like school closes more often now than it used to?

It’s probably a couple of factors. I grew up in Prince William County and graduated from Woodbridge High School in 2009 – which wasn’t all that long ago – and I don’t remember having nearly as many snow days as there are on the list provided by the county for this article.

The simplest explanation with respect to parents is that Moms and Dads notice closings more now than when they were kids because of the adverse impacts. When school closes, you have to find childcare or take time off of work. Whereas from a kid’s perspective, snow days mean more sleep and cancelled math tests — fun stuff at the time but quickly forgotten.

Another explanation is that the frequent high-impact events since 2009 have caused schools to close for multiple days at a time, which may leave a more lasting memory than just a single day off after a lower-impact event.

That explanation leads us to the elephant in the room. Regardless of whether or not schools really do close more often now than they did years ago, many people invoke that argument as a lead-in to asserting that nowadays schools close too often for conditions that wouldn’t have stopped them from getting to school as a kid. It’s the old “I walked to school in six feet of snow, uphill, both ways” cliché.

Unfortunately, I have no way to address that assertion in an objective manner. That debate is left to the CWG comment threads and Facebook feeds for winters to come.

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