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Posted at 12:26 PM ET, 08/24/2011

D.C. earthquake: Were mass school closings necessary?


California kids would be back in school by now. (DAMIAN DOVARGANES/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Tuesday’s earthquake was inconvenient, no doubt about it. Many Washingtonians found their workdays cut short and had to traverse strained transportation networks to get home, pick up their kids and otherwise go about their lives.

But did the inconvenience have to spread into a second day?

The D.C. Public Schools early this morning decided to join several other (but not all) area school districts in calling a systemwide “quake day.” That was a reversal from late last night, when city officials sent out word that city schools, minus three that were clearly damaged, would be open. The reversal was announced shortly before 5 a.m.

That meant that parents across the city had to scramble to make arrangements to take care of their kids or to stay home from work themselves. No doubt safety should be the first concern, but was a wholesale closure the best decision? And if it was, could it have been made sooner?

It’s a debate that’s come up before in the city — in particular, when former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty waited longer than most regional leaders to close schools after the February 2010 Snowmageddon storm. City employees and some parents chafed at the idea that their safety might be put at risk, but a lot of parents appreciated Fenty’s tougher standards for school closures, which can be needlessly disruptive.

That said, an earthquake is not the same as a snowstorm. While snow-related school closings are regularly made in the wee hours of the morning, after officials get a sense of travel conditions, there seems to be little reason why a 2 p.m. earthquake led to a 4 a.m. closure call — especially after sending parents, students and teachers to bed with different expectations (and also when the city has kept its libraries and rec centers open).

Gray announced this morning that engineers have “red-flagged” 13 schools for damage: Bancroft Elementary, School Without Walls, Roosevelt High, McFarland Middle School, Langdon Education Campus, Burrville Elementary, Eaton Elementary, Cardozo High, Lafayette Elementary, Columbia Heights Education Campus, Ferebee-Hope Elementary, Noyes Elementary and Beers Elementary.

Question is, what about DCPS’s other 114 schools? A Gray spokeswoman told The Post that part of the mass-closure decision was to avoid “confusion” among parents. But I suspect many parents would have preferred confusion to the last-minute upheaval.

For schools with no apparent damage, how should the desire to avoid upending parents’ lives weigh against the chance that there is some hidden structural defect? Does the minute potential for a lawsuit outweigh parents’ need to go about their lives? Let me know what you think.

By  |  12:26 PM ET, 08/24/2011

 
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