Just a month into winter, several Washington area school districts have used more than twice as many snow days as they did all of the past school year. Prince George’s County has closed schools four times, and Fairfax County has canceled classes six times. Loudoun County has shut down its schools for eight days, including four this week, when it also canceled midterm exams.
Coming shortly after winter break, the recent closings — for snow, low temperatures and lingering ice on roads — have left parents fretting that their children are spending more time at home than in class.
“They’ve been lying on the couch for seven days, watching TV,” said Terri Azie, the mother of two teenage daughters in Loudoun, where school is set to resume Monday. “It’s disgusting. Their parents can’t get them to move.”
Her daughter Erin said she spent part of the week cramming for her Algebra II midterm before catching up on episodes of “The Vampire Diaries.”
“I studied pretty hard to get the grade I wanted, and now I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do about it,” Erin Azie said. In the meantime, she’s been chatting with her friends online and relaxing, celebrating each closure announcement on Twitter.
Parents have long bemoaned school closures and the havoc they wreak on work schedules and child-care arrangements. And now that many parents have embraced new outlets — Facebook, Twitter and neighborhood e-mail groups — the frustration can go viral.
When Prince William County schools announced successive closures and delays this week, it triggered so many angry complaints that one commenter suggested that people “get out the popcorn” to watch the sometimes-hostile back and forth.
“I can’t stand that my kids think that every time a snowflake falls, they don’t have to go to school,” one mother wrote. “UMMMM when they get out into the real world they will still have to go to work so we might as well get them used to it.”
Not canceling school provoked just as much distress. When Prince William officials announced that schools would open Friday with a two-hour delay, another person wrote: “JUST CLOSE AND BE DONE WITH IT. We really do not need to be taking risks.”
School administrators said the closings were critical to student safety, citing buses that wouldn’t start, frozen pipes and busted heating systems, sub-zero windchills and persistent slippery roads. They also defended the delayed starts — criticized as having little effect when temperatures hovered in the teens throughout the day — because they gave buses and crews extra time to get everyone where they needed to go safely.
“Most people will tell you it’s easier to navigate safely in daylight,” Prince William schools spokesman Phil Kavits said.
Kavits also said area school systems have closed often this year because the region isn’t accustomed to such weather, leaving local officials — and many schoolchildren — ill-equipped to deal with freezing temperatures and snowy streets.
“We are very concerned about students standing in the cold and in the wind,” Kavits said. “And any time there is a risk to students involved, we are closing the schools or taking appropriate action.”
More than 260 buses had difficulty starting in Fairfax this week. Fuel lines froze, batteries died and some buses needed to be towed to garages for maintenance, said Jeff Platenberg, Fairfax schools’ chief operating officer. About 150 buses were affected Friday morning, leaving many children to wait in the cold.
Even with the cold weather, Tonya Lawson, a Fort Washington parent, said she couldn’t understand why Prince George’s would open its doors two hours late several days after the storm.
“Is it disappointing? Yes,” Lawson said. “That’s two hours our children have lost, two days in a row. And it’s not like there was real inclement weather.”
Segun C. Eubanks, chairman of the Prince George’s school board, said he understands parents’ frustration. Eubanks, who grew up in Boston, said the reaction in the Washington region to snow has “always perplexed me — the chickening out and not going to school.”
“As a parent, you want them in school,” Eubanks said, noting that his son, a senior, has an internship and doesn’t attend school at all when there is a two-hour delay. But Eubanks said that in a large county, such as his, people are going to have different conditions outside their front doors and that safety should be the uppermost consideration.
“What’s going on in Accokeek, and what’s going on in Upper Marlboro, and what is going on in College Park can be very different,” Eubanks said. “It may look good in my neighborhood, but it might be a mess in Accokeek.”
Some of the decisions have focused on children who walk to school, with school systems not wanting to send thousands of them onto icy sidewalks in the pre-dawn hours. Montgomery County delayed openings Thursday in part to avoid dark commutes.
“You make the call with the best information you have, and, of course, safety is always our top priority, but your preference is always to have kids in school,” Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said. “If you can do that, you do it.”
In the District, Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), acknowledged parents’ frustration with the closures, but he said Gray is confident that he made the right call this week to close schools Tuesday and Wednesday.
“That’s leadership: You make a decision knowing very well that you can never make everyone happy,” Ribeiro said. “There are people who are going to advocate for staying at home and those who are going to advocate for going to school. We take that into account, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure people are safe and kids are getting an education.”
Alisea Crowley looked at the salted roadway outside Tulip Grove Elementary School in Prince George’s on Friday and couldn’t understand why officials opened school two hours late three days after a storm.
“Today, of all days, they could have opened on time,” she said as she walked her son, Justin, 5, to school.
But some parents took the off-days in stride, chalking them up to part of living in a city that, at least in January, is at heart a part of the South.
“I’m long past getting too overwrought about snow days,” said Heather Dixon, a District mother of two boys. Snow days were more of a headache when her sons were younger, she said, but now they are in the fifth and seventh grades, old enough to be more independent, and old enough that Dixon can continue to work when snow falls.
Not everyone is as fortunate.
Carolyn Mullen, a Fairfax mother with two young children, said she called their day-care center in tears Wednesday night because she had an important work meeting the next day and her husband, who had taken two days off, could not stay home again.
“The bottom line is the complete randomness of the recent school closures boggles my mind. It seems that even at the thought of a snowflake schools close,” she wrote in a letter to The Washington Post. “Now I have to be stressed every time it snows.”
Emma Brown, Michael Alison Chandler, Donna St. George and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.