An erratic winter storm system roared into the area early yesterday, dumping as much as eight inches of snow, confounding morning commuters, closing most area schools and shutting down the federal government at midafternoon.

But the storm limped out of the area before nightfall without delivering a predicted late-day punch, and above-freezing temperatures left many roads clear or merely wet.

Forecasters warned last night that it was only the first act.

"Tuesday is going to be cloudy and cold, with more snow developing during the morning after the rush hour," said Bill Comeaux, of the National Weather Service. "We're looking at a possibility of four inches or so."

Most school officials said last night that they would wait until early today to decide if classes would be held.

The intensity of the storm yesterday morning seemed to catch many officials by surprise, as both Fairfax and Prince George's counties opened and then closed their schools within just a few hours. Schools never opened in Montgomery, Howard, Loudoun and Fauquier counties. Most other systems opened late or sent students home early.

Police throughout the area reported hundreds of accidents but no major injuries, and traffic was reported heavy but flowing steadily during both rush hours.

"It helped that the evening rush hour began at 1 p.m.," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works, referring to the staggered release plan the federal government adopted to send workers home early in waves.

Under that plan, federal workers who live in outlying counties are allowed to leave first, followed in half-hour increments by workers who live in the closer suburbs, ending with District residents.

It was the first time in 13 months that the government released workers early, said Richard McGowan, spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management. "Our decision was based on the condition of the roads in the outlying counties, plus the prediction for freezing temperatures tonight during the start of the rush hour," he said.

The D.C. government responded by putting traffic signals on settings for the evening rush hour, and Metro called in drivers to provide commuter and express bus service that normally operates later.

Many employers in the region also set in motion a similar staggered release of employees, including the District government, which at 1 p.m. sent home workers who live outside the Capital Beltway.

Officials said the early arrival of the storm apparently kept many commuters from making the journey into town and sent thousands who normally commute by auto to public transportation.

"It turned out it was a normal Monday winter rush-hour morning, with 173,000 passengers," Metro's Beverly Silverberg said last night. "But they apparently were different people. Many people in the outlying areas didn't come in."

Ridership seemed lighter than usual last night, Silverberg said, "but that was because people had four to six hours to go home."

Forecasters said the storm system that brought the snow was not driven by a strong jet stream, and that made it difficult for them to predict when or how much snow would fall.

Some forecasters had predicted that snow wouldn't move into the Washington area until midafternoon.

But long before dawn, snow had arrived, first at Dulles International Airport about 4 a.m., then at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Soon after the snow started hitting the ground, highway crews were ready to clear the roads. But in many places, there was nothing to clear as pavement temperatures stayed above freezing and the snow melted when it hit the roads.

The exceptions were primarily in Loudoun and upper Montgomery counties, where the heaviest accumulations were reported.

The morning commute went better than expected, said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mary Anne Reynolds.

Despite yesterday's apparent success in keeping roads clear, overnight temperatures were expected to create new problems. "We think we're in for a full night: sanding, salting and perhaps plowing . . . . The challenge is to keep the pavement bare and keep it from freezing," Reynolds said.

Last night's cold also prompted responses by area shelters for the homeless, such as in Alexandria and Fairfax County, where extra beds were being added.

There were some glitches in yesterday's snow operations. One was in Prince George's County, where a 5-year-old kindergartner at Catherine T. Reed Elementary School in Lanham was put on the wrong bus and dropped off about 15 miles from her home, the girl's mother, Sherri Burmfield, said.

Burmfield said that other children urged her daughter, Amber Baker, to get off the bus when it reached the end of the route in Landover. The girl stood crying in front of an apartment building until a young boy offered to take her home with him.

The boy's mother called police, whom Burmfield had notified of the missing child, and an officer went to pick her up. "We were just lucky," Burmfield said. Staff writers Brooke A. Masters, Lisa Leff, Veronica Jennings, Steve Bates, Pierre Thomas, Carlos Sanchez, Amy Goldstein and Claudia Sandlin contributed to this report.

The following photos ran in earlier editions only.