Snow volunteers pitch in to shovel as schools try to open

By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Conceding that they had reached their snow-clearing limits Monday, local officials made a remarkable appeal to residents to spend the federal holiday shoveling sidewalks and school bus stops so that hundreds of schools could reopen Tuesday.

The unusual request came as school systems surveyed bus stops still piled with snow, sidewalks still slick with ice and school parking lots still not fully plowed and weighed whether to stay closed for yet another day -- a decision certain to be debated by parents as the interruption to the school year entered its second week.

In Anne Arundel, Fauquier, Frederick, Howard, Prince George's and Prince William counties and Alexandria, officials said Monday that not enough progress had been made to reopen safely. But the District planned to reopen on time Tuesday; Loudoun County announced plans to open one hour late; and Arlington, Calvert, Charles, Fairfax, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties said they planned to open two hours late.

The federal government also announced that it would open two hours late, with a liberal leave policy in effect.

Montgomery County Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill said she would be holding her breath Tuesday morning as the school system's 142,000 children navigate treacherous sidewalks and mounds of snow at bus stops. Even so, she said she didn't think there was much to be gained by waiting another day to open school.

"I don't think these mounds of snow are going to disappear in 24 to 48 or even 72 hours," said O'Neill, who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase. "I think we're going to be living with these conditions for a while."

But Prince George's Superintendent William Hite said an extra day would allow the school system to get a safety plan in place for its 130,000 students. Hite spent Monday compiling reports of the numerous places where students would be forced into traffic because of uncleared sidewalks.

"So that's our dilemma," he said. "We know that at some point we're eventually going to have to bring the kids out, but we have to make an effort to make it safe."

The school system said students can earn community-service hours by helping clear snow.

Some parents expressed relief that schools would remain closed, while others were growing exasperated with the slow progress.

In Alexandria, one PTA president, Ann O'Hanlon of George Mason Elementary School, said she was receiving "some outraged e-mails from parents" over another day of canceled classes, but she also understood the school district's reasoning after helping to shovel around her school.

"I understand what they're doing. They're erring on the side of caution, and I get that," O'Hanlon said. "I think it's a risk-benefit calculation, and I think a lot of parents were willing to take on a little more risk."

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