Thousands of Washington area children were stranded in classrooms and buses yesterday because of the freakish snowstorm, and confusion reigned as several school systems changed their opening and closing times as weather forecasts grew gloomier.
Attendance was down at some schools and hundreds of children arrived late because their buses were slowed by icy roads. Afternoon delays were even worse. Numerous minor bus accidents were reported and some buses were stuck in unplowed school parking lots and on roadsides.
Some school systems, including the District, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Arlington and Prince William counties, escaped the problems because they were closed for Veterans Day.
In many cases, school officials' last-minute decision to close early -- by one hour in Prince George's County and two hours in Fairfax County -- came too late to prevent children from being stranded at their schools for hours because their buses or parents were stuck on snow-clogged roads.
Late last night, hundreds of students remained stranded at 35 Prince George's schools, a county school spokesman said. He said emergency workers began supplying them with blankets and food about 10 p.m. and it was still hoped the children could be returned home by morning.
Seven Prince George's school buses were stranded in snow for five hours yesterday evening on Addison Road between Central Avenue and Walker Mill Road. Four of the buses were jammed with students from Skyline Elementary School in Suitland. The buses, bringing the children home early from school, became stuck shortly after 1 p.m. and were freed by a snow plow around 6:15 p.m.
One driver, Carolyn A.P. Watson, had been trying to deliver her students home since 11:30 a.m. By 6 p.m., she had one shivering passenger, 10-year-old fourth grader Ryan Robinson. But Watson said she had to pick up students at another school before her day was done, and she didn't know whether her own children had arrived home yet.
At Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, 900 students were stranded until 8:30 p.m. because Telegraph Road, on which the school is located, was snowy and unsanded. The students, from the secondary school and Hayfield Elementary School across the street, were fed dinner while they waited to go home.
Several hundred students also were stranded until 7 p.m. at Key Intermediate School in Franconia.
At the Thomas Pullen School in Landover, a creative arts magnet school that draws children from throughout Prince George's, a third of the 600 students were watching movies two hours after school was to have closed.
Only five of the dozen buses had made it to school by that time. Most of the 50 school staff members stayed late and made plans to feed students a dinner of spaghetti, salad and French bread left over from lunch.
As snow piled up outside Oakcrest Elementary School in Landover, a small band of children sat in a bus for half an hour as school staff members and parents tried to push the stuck vehicle to one side of the driveway. About a dozen other children waited in the school. Seven teachers were still at the school at 4 p.m., unable to move their cars.
"Most folks are still geared up for cutting grass and blowing leaves," said Prince George's school spokesman Brian Porter. "But our subcontractors aren't equipped to move massive amounts of snow."
One teacher described the scene at an elementary school in western Fairfax: "The brakes were locking on the school buses as they drove in," she said. "They'd slide four feet."
Fairfax County schools, which opened on time yesterday, were swamped with calls from parents complaining about the decision to hold classes. Several thousand called the Montgomery County school system to complain about the decision to close the schools in midmorning after deciding to open them. School officials blamed faulty weather forecasts for the confusion.
In Montgomery, which had a previously planned half-day session for elementary and middle school students yesterday, officials canceled elementary classes and opened other schools two hours late, just as an updated forecast told them that large amounts of snow were predicted.
On the basis of that new information, they ordered bus drivers to turn around and take the children home. However, by that time -- 10 a.m. -- a large number of students had arrived. At Hoover Junior High in Potomac, for example, 900 students were in attendance out of 1,077 enrolled.
Colleges throughout the area also called off classes yesterday. At the University of Maryland, where classes were canceled at noon, campus spokeswoman Roz Hiebert said the campus roads were clogged for several hours afterward with cars trying to make their way onto snowy Rte. 1. "It was a total gridlock," she said.
Classes also were called off at other institutions, including American University, George Mason University, George Washington University, Marymount University, Montgomery College and Northern Virginia Community College. Half a dozen employes of Nova's Annandale campus planned to spend the night there because they had no way to get home, said school spokesman Jim Bradley.
In Howard County, parents scrambled to find care for their children after school officials first announced that classes would begin two hours late and then canceled them for the day.
Susan Castora, who has two children in the county schools, said she heard a televised announcement about the late opening, and it was only after she called a neighbor who is an assistant principal that she learned school would be closed.
"If I hadn't spoken to him, I might have left for work and dropped the kids off at the bus stop," she said.
Castora was lucky: Her husband had planned to stay home until noon and a neighbor had agreed to watch the children for the afternoon. But she was concerned that schools might close today: "That's going to be a real problem."
The situation would have been worse, school officials said, but many working parents were home for the day because of the holiday and could care for their children.
Pummeled by parental complaints, school officials blamed forecasters.
"It's the worst that I remember," said Dolores Bohen, spokeswoman for the Fairfax schools. "I have never seen so much conflicting information from the different weather sources."
Fairfax County Superintendent Robert R. Spillane made the decision to open on time at 5:30 a.m., when Accu-Weather was predicting an inch of snow that was not expected to stick, she said.
At 9 a.m., the National Weather Service changed its prediction and said there would be six inches of snow, she said. Spillane announced a half-hour later that the county's 178 schools would let out two hours early.
For all the parents who protested, saying the schools should have called off classes, others were more forgiving.
"All they have is technology," said Kevin Kelley, president of the North Springfield Elementary School PTA. "If the good Lord wants to change the weather, there's nothing they can do."