Six-year-old Christopher McIver normally spends his Thursdays on arithmetic and other second-grade tasks, but when snow closed his school yesterday, he went to work with Mom. He made necklaces out of paper clips, drew pictures on message pads and eventually curled up for a nap in an empty room at the doctor's office in the District where his mother, Renee McIver, works as a secretary.
Like McIver, parents around the Washington area woke up yesterday to between two and five inches of snow and the news of no school. In desperation, they improvised, tracking down baby sitters, juggling schedules and calling in to ask for the day off.
Yesterday's snowfall canceled school throughout the metropolitan area, delayed commuters and caused a rash of minor traffic accidents. Shortly after 11 a.m., however, the snowfall ended, leaving an accumulation of two inches at National Airport and five at Dulles Airport.
According to the National Weather Service, temperatures will be in the mid-30s today and rain mixed with more snow is expected.
"Last time it snowed, they told me in advance so I just stayed home with him. This time they waited till the last minute . . . . They caught me in traffic and I had no way of turning back," said McIver, who was driving Christopher to school at the Institute for the Gifted and Talented in Northwest Washington when she heard on the radio that it would be closed.
Close to the end of the day, McIver said Christopher was happily distracted in a vacant doctor's office, playing doctor. "It's been no problem so far . . . . He's pretty content," she said.
Snow and subzero cold plagued much of the nation, extending as far south as Texas. The low temperatures filled shelters for the homeless and icy roads caused the traffic deaths of six people in Indiana and two in Nebraska. In northeastern Arizona, the National Guard airlifted supplies to 2,000 Indians stranded on their reservations.
In the Washington area, the slushy snow caused headaches for drivers. Fairfax County police reported twice as many traffic accidents as usual, although none was serious. And in Prince George's County, an evening rush hour accident involving a tractor-trailer truck and several automobiles blocked traffic on the Capital Beltway for about 15 minutes, according to Maryland state police.
But the snow brought no complaints from kids who got an unexpected dose of freedom.
"It's great. I love missing school. You can sleep late and see your friends," said Catherine Gill, 16, who, like dozens of other adolescents, spent her day riding a toboggan at Battery Kemble Park off Chain Bridge Road.
Said another sledder, 12-year-old Sean O'Leary, a ninth grader at McLean School, "The only problem is that after four days off they start adding them to the end of the school year, which is cheap."
Like enterprising kids everywhere, O'Leary and his friend, David Satlin, had seen dollar signs in the snow. They earned $23 between the two of them shoveling snow for less than an hour. Self-employment, however, has its drawbacks: "Both our backs are killing us," Satlin said.
Katrina Huggard, an eighth grader at Deal Junior High in Northwest Washington, tried without luck to organize a snowball fight, but settled on McDonald's for lunch with friends, followed by a movie.
On a hill near the Washington Cathedral, Sheila Wagner was sledding with two of her own children and two others she had agreed to babysit with.
"This isn't a day off. I call this a working vacation," said Wagner, who teaches aerobic dancing parttime but stayed home yesterday. After sledding, she planned lunch and then games and popcorn. "Then I'll count down till their mother comes to get them."
Louise Denton, a foreign language teacher at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Prince George's County, let out a cheer when she heard school was canceled.
"I think it's terrific. I pray for it more for me than the kids because I get the day off. It really works out rather well because I don't have to worry about what to do with them on days like today," said Denton, who used the free time to try out her new video camera, recording her three kids making a snowman.
While declaration of a snow day is cause to rejoice among children, it's more complicated for the officials who must make the decision.
Tom Newman, supervisor of transportation for Arlington County schools, set his alarm for 3 a.m. and was out of the house by 4 to check out the roads. He called in his recommendation at 5, and a few minutes later the word went out that school would open late. But at 7:20 a.m. when snow was still falling, the decision was made to cancel school.
"My two kids think I'm some kind of hero," said Newman. Although his children are not affected by his decisions because they attend school in Prince George's County, "they have developed an appreciation for my job," he said.