Snow volunteers pitch in to shovel as schools try to open

By Debbi Wilgoren, Theola Labbé-DeBose and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 11:31 AM

Washington lurched back to work and school Tuesday morning -- slowed in many places by vehicle accidents and snow-clogged streets, but aided by staggered opening times for schools and the federal government and a last-ditch public-private effort to clear piles of snow and ice over the holiday weekend.

Major traffic jams were reported throughout the morning, as commuters negotiated curb lanes blocked by snow and ice and a series of overturned vehicles, collisions and lane closures on major highways. While many schools stayed closed for a sixth or seventh consecutive day, others struggled to transport children safely to their classrooms along ice-rutted streets and walkways. Many bus and carpool stops had to be shifted or altered because snow blocked the usual locations.

There was a new hurdle before daybreak: An overturned tractor-trailer blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 in College Park, and a possible fuel spill from the accident shut down ramps onto the highway from the Capital Beltway. As the rush hour progressed, other accidents were reported, bottling up routes into the city from around the Beltway.

But Metrorail was running on time, and downtown streets were more clear of snow than they had been during Friday's disastrous commute home.

Street parking is still nearly impossible to find in both the city and the suburbs, and many curb lanes are still blocked by snow or ice. The top levels of some parking garages have not been plowed. Snow removal continues, and a snow emergency remained in effect in D.C. through Tuesday night, making it illegal to park along many major roadways.

Traffic cameras showed parts of downtown badly clogged by mid-morning as the delayed opening for federal agencies took effect. Commuters reported bumper-to-bumper traffic on many arteries --including the 14th Street bridge into the District, and New York Avenue/Route 50 headed out of the city.

School systems in Anne Arundel, Fauquier, Frederick, Howard, Prince George's and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria declined to open Tuesday, saying that -- despite several remarkable public appeals to residents to help shovel -- not enough progress had been made for students to get to class safely.

But D.C. schools and government offices opened on time, and the federal government and many area school systems opened two hours late, as stir-crazy Washingtonians tried to resume a normal schedule more than a week after the record-setting snowfall began.

In Prince George's County, meanwhile, frustrated parents railed at a late-in-the-day announcement Monday that schools would be closed Tuesday, for the sixth consecutive day. Schools spokeswoman Tanzi West said older students can earn community service hours for assisting with snow removal at schools. But that didn't help parents of younger children who suddenly needed day care in order to get to work.

"Why can't they figure this out earlier?" asked Dierdre Marrow, a business owner in Bowie. She was working the phone Monday night trying to find a place for her daughter, 6-year-old Harlee Smith, to spend the day. "It's too late to find a babysitter. I am stuck."

Some teachers in the county, especially those who also have children in the school system, were incensed by the decision that faculty and staff had to report to work even though classes were canceled.

"My husband has to go to work today because we were unable to get out and he missed three days last week. I have no idea what to do," said one elementary school teacher, who has young children and did not want to be quoted by name.

In Montgomery County, Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill said she would be holding her breath as the school system's 142,000 children navigate treacherous sidewalks and mounds of snow at bus stops Tuesday morning. 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 R. Hite Jr. 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."

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.

Fenty (D) 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 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.

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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