Obama: Snowy Washington Needs 'Chicago Toughness'

President Barack Obama pauses to gently needle Washington for all but coming to a halt on Wednesday after a dusting of snow and ice. He says school would rarely be scrubbed in hometown Chicago under these conditions. Video by AP
By Daniel de Vise and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 2:53 PM

Do schools in the Washington area shut down at the drop of a snowflake or glint of an icicle?

That is the view of President Obama, who poked fun this morning at his daughters' school -- Sidwell Friends -- and others in the region for declaring a snow day. "Because of what?" he asked. "Some ice?"

Many suburban school systems were closed today, and District schools delayed opening because of last night's freezing rain, which coated cars and roads with a thick gloss of ice. Private schools, including Sidwell, tend to follow the lead of public schools in school delays or closures. Sidwell has campuses in Bethesda and Northwest Washington.

It's a common sentiment among parents from up North or out West -- the Obamas, of course, just moved from Chicago -- that schools around Washington close for weather that would barely register in the snow belt.

"We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town," Obama said this morning. "I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

Ellis Turner, associate head of school at Sidwell, replied to the president's challenge in an e-mail to The Post.

"No question, the president is right. The next time it snows, we would like to invite him to help us make the decision. His involvement will make it much easier to explain to our students why they won't be able to spend the day sleeping and sledding."

Turner added, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the president's school-age years in the Pacific islands: "Or, I suppose Sidwell Friends could merge with Punahou, move our classrooms to Hawaii and never worry about the weather again."

Longtime Washington area locals are resigned to the routine.

"We had extreme, icy conditions on our roadways today," said Steve Simon, spokesman for the 139,000-student Montgomery County schools, whose charges have now enjoyed two snow days on the heels of a three-day weekend. "The sidewalks are just treacherous. We could have had so many injuries."

And in Chicago? The last time the Chicago public schools closed for weather was in 1999, for an ice storm that made it impossible to walk down the street without injury, officials said.

At the former school of Malia and Sasha Obama, snow days are the stuff of mythology, not of reality.

"I've been here six years and we haven't closed them yet" --- not through drifting feet-thick snows, not through freezing winds off Lake Michigan that bring the chill down to 40 below, said David Magill, headmaster of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

"There are kids playing in the snow outside my window right now," he said. "They're building a fort. We believe in getting them outside as much as possible."

Chicago public school officials say that closing schools is not an option, because many children come from households where alternate childcare would be next to impossible.

"We will do everything possible to keep schools open no matter what," said Jeanie Chung, a spokeswoman for the Chicago school system.

Whether that must-open attitude will become national policy with the ascension of Obama and Arne Duncan, the former chief executive of Chicago public schools and now the secretary of education, remains to be seen.

"Arne Duncan basically said he did not ever intend to cancel school because of weather" when he ran the Chicago schools, Chung said.

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