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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; A01

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."

Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale made a recorded call Monday afternoon to the homes of many of the system's 173,000 students, asking parents to supervise their children Tuesday morning and stay with them at bus stops until the buses arrive. He warned that buses might run late or might not be able to make some stops.

For students who walk to school, Dale advised in a message he also e-mailed to parents, "consider driving them yourself or you may opt to keep your student home."

The thought of her students taking to the road to get to school prompted Karen Kenna, principal of Cardinal Forest Elementary in Springfield, to issue a call for volunteers to clear more sidewalks at the sprawling campus. More than 50 parents and children turned out Monday, cheered on by Kenna, PTA President Jill Chastain and Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock), who came bearing doughnuts for volunteers.

A cluster of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade boys dutifully scooped snow from the school's playground and piled it high, stopping only occasionally to throw snowballs.

The District asked neighbors to create "shoveling teams," while volunteers in Alexandria worked alongside school staff to remove patches of ice and snow at neighborhood schools. A dusting of snow Monday did not complicate their efforts, as some had feared.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called on able-bodied residents to do their part and help clean the city's sidewalks. "It is a public-safety issue. When we open schools this week, it is going to be tough for the kids to walk if the sidewalks are not shoveled," Fenty (D) said during a Monday news conference. He said that all of the city's major arteries and more than "90 percent" of residential streets had been cleared.

District crews that hauled snow from last week's snowfall were back on duty Monday to treat cleared roadways. Montgomery reported that hard mounds of snow and ice blocked lanes on many streets.

Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk warned that pedestrians were choosing the street instead of icy sidewalks. "Everyone will have to share space and be careful," he said.

In Arlington, an army of front-end loaders, plows and dump trucks was out in neighborhoods Monday afternoon clearing critical bus routes in anticipation of the resumption of classes.

But despite the holiday work, Tuesday's commute was expected to be a grind, with most government workers pressing to get back to work for the first time in several days on constricted thoroughfares. Potentially icy roadways could disrupt public transportation schedules, and many parking lanes will probably be blocked.

"It will be like a Greyhound bus trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle," said John B. Townsend II, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman, who predicted gridlock.

Weather permitting, Metro planned to run trains until midnight Monday and anticipated regular weekday service for trains and buses Tuesday, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

Fairfax County School Board member Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) said he had driven around his district Monday and found that many bus stops still had "no easy place for kids to stand." He said he had received some e-mails from parents unhappy that Fairfax had reversed its decision to open schools Monday and others glad that schools were closed.

"It's not that anybody is falling down on the job," Storck said. It was simply that the mammoth amount of snow left "so few options" for getting the snow away from sidewalks and bus stops.

Staff writers Sholnn Freeman, Hamil R. Harris, Jenna Johnson, Ed O'Keefe, Avis Thomas-Lester, Michael Alison Chandler, Michael Birnbaum and Josh White contributed to this report.

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