Area school districts offer different reactions to cold weather

School districts throughout the Washington region reacted differently to the forecasts of frigid temperatures Tuesday, with some opting to open as usual, others deciding to close for the day and some delaying their start by two hours.

The different responses meant some of the area’s students stayed at home while others waited at bus stops or walked to school in rare near-zero temperatures. Some parents questioned the rationale of delaying the start of school for two hours, as temperatures held in the single digits — before factoring in wind chills — throughout the morning.

Schools in Prince George’s and Arlington counties and Alexandria opened two hours late. Kelly Alexander, a spokesman for Alexandria Public Schools, said officials thought the “delay would give us a little time to warm up.”

Alexander said the city took some extra precautions by keeping the heat turned up at schools overnight. Bus drivers arrived to work early to make sure the buses were warmed up. By making the decision early — before 6 p.m. Monday — officials hoped parents would have time to prepare and make sure their children were bundled up.

Schools in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties were closed. Schools in the District and Montgomery County opened at their regular times, although the District’s Hardy Middle School lost heat after a gas line froze and Anacostia High School had flooding due to a leaky roof. Both those buildings canceled classes.

 

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Four schools in Montgomery closed early because of problems with power, heat or water. Jackson Road Elementary in Silver Spring and Capt. James Daly Elementary School in Germantown lost power; pipes burst at White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring; and the heat malfunctioned at Magruder High School in Rockville.

Earlier in the day, a fire alarm went off at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, apparently because of a malfunctioning water pipe. Students were evacuated to the outdoors for 10 minutes, schools officials said. Some were without coats while they waited for the building to be deemed safe.

Overall, the problems in Montgomery were more than a typical day but were relatively few in a system of 202 schools, said schools spokesman Dana Tofig.

“Our schools are accustomed to operating in the cold,” he said. “For the most part, it’s been a normal instructional day.”

Fairfax County School Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said that Tuesday marked the first time Virginia’s largest school system had canceled classes due solely to cold weather. The administration consulted closely with the National Weather Service before deciding to close.

“The main thing is the safety of students, primarily students at the bus stops and walking to school,” McElveen said. “Students could get frostbite within just a few minutes of exposure. Facing that with 180,000 students is a difficult decision, but one that was warranted.”

Whytni Kernodle, an Arlington parent with two boys at Key Elementary School, said she got an alert from the school system Monday at 6:30 p.m. that her sons’ school would be opening with a two-hour delay.

“For us, we got to sleep in, so it’s not too bad,” she said. But at the same time, the 11 a.m. school start time threw a wrench in her schedule. “My entire day is off,” she said. “I’d be interested to understand what difference it made.”

Prince William County schools officials made the decision early Monday afternoon to cancel school Tuesday, so they could start informing parents by the end of the day. They decided that the cold snap was too much of a risk to the safety of the children who walk to school.

“The combination of a forecast of record-breaking cold and unprecedented wind chills led to the possibility of danger, especially for the more than 20,000 walkers we have,” said Phil Kavits, a schools spokesman. “Really, the conditions made for a fairly easy call, because we don’t want to expose students to these kinds of dangers associated with this kind of cold.”

For Loudoun schools, classes were canceled for the second day in a row. Officials on Monday were mostly concerned about icy road conditions, particularly on the dirt and gravel roads that still run through much of western Loudoun. By Tuesday, they were worried about the temperatures.

“This is record cold. You just don’t want children exposed to it,” said Wayde Byard, a spokesman for the school system. He said the school calendar has enough extra days built in to accommodate emergency situations.

Some parents in the District — where schools had been closed for winter break since Dec. 20 — were thrilled that vacation was over, especially after closures earlier in December for snowstorms that never materialized.

“We are desperate to get these kids out of this house!” said Capitol Hill father Tim Krepp, only half-joking. The Krepps normally walk or bike with their two kids to Brent Elementary, 18 blocks away. But Tuesday they broke with routine and drove.

Other parents argued that it was too cold for children — especially those whose parents can’t or don’t drive — to make their way to school. Unlike suburban school systems, the District does not provide school buses except for students with disabilities. Some students take public transit, while many others, especially elementary school students, walk.

“I’m very upset because they can see it’s 7 degrees outside,” said Tracie Smith of Southeast, who said she was keeping her fifth-grader home from Patterson Elementary.

Trayon White, who represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education, said he had heard from many concerned parents, and predicted that many classrooms would be half-empty. “This is ridiculous,” White said. “It’s too cold.”

Rasheedah Rogers wore a parka with a fur-lined hood as she walked her two children, fully outfitted in jackets, hats and mittens, to Raymond Elementary in Petworth. She is due to give birth to another child at the end of the month, and said she didn’t know how she would manage if she had a newborn in tow. “I see a lot of moms out here with strollers,” she said.

The school system opened its buildings 45 minutes early so students wouldn’t have to wait outside. But Smith worried that wouldn’t be early enough for many children, who leave home when their parents go to work. “A lot of kids don’t even have coats,” Smith said. “The wind is so cutting, it is painful for adults. A child is going to be an icicle.”

In Columbia Heights, a Wilson High sophomore stamped her feet and shivered as she waited for the H4 Metro bus to take her to school.

“It’s too cold. We should have stayed home,” she said. But she admitted that she was secretly happy to be headed back to school. “I want to see my friends,” she said. “I’ve kind of missed it.”

Crossing guard Charles Patterson, 82, wore more layers than he could count, and smiled as he ushered similarly bundled-up children across 13th and Spring streets NW.

Jeff Platenberg, Fairfax County schools’ assistant superintendent for facilities, said Tuesday’s closure was the first for the county’s schools because of cold weather in recent decades.

Rockville parent Robbin Brinkhoff applauded Montgomery County’s decision to stay open. “I think we’ve become a little too pampered and lax,” Brinkhoff said. “This isn’t the worst that is out there.”

She offered rides to a couple of children who, she thought, might need them.

At a school bus stop in Chevy Chase, Md., some students waited for the bus in heated cars with their parents at 7:15 a.m. But most opted to stand on the sidewalks, bundled up to stay warm.

Prince George’s schools officials said they decided on a two-hour delay to give maintenance workers enough time to resolve any problems that arose from the weather.

“The biggest issue will be broken pipes,” said Sam Stefanelli, acting director of building services. Stefanelli said that ordinarily the school system turns down schools’ heating systems at night to conserve energy. On Monday night, the heat stayed on. Stefanelli said the county’s 540 portable classrooms have individual thermostats, so “they are probably better off than anyone.”

But June Evans, a Bowie parent, said she kept her daughters home because of the trailer-based classrooms at Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Prince George’s.

Evans said her husband, who is a police officer, came home after working the late shift on Monday night and told her that it was too cold to send their children to school.

“He didn’t want them outside in those temperatures,” Evans said. “He didn’t think they would be able to withstand it.”

Evans said all but one of her fifth-grade daughter’s classes are in a portable classroom. She has to go outside to go to the restroom, to get a drink of water and to change classes.

Emma Brown, T. Rees Shapiro and Donna St. George contributed to this report.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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