Some students waited in school cafeterias for buses that were late or never came; others called their parents to pick them up. Those who eventually boarded buses sat captive for hours more as night fell and they crept along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The surprise storm that dusted the region Tuesday afternoon hit at the worst possible time for children--just as schools were letting out--and delayed bus rides home as much as seven hours for Prince George's County students, and nearly that long in Montgomery.
"We wanted to ditch the bus and go to Starbucks," said Liz Matthews, 15, a sophomore at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, who spent two hours waiting for her bus and two more hours on it, arriving at her Laurel home after 8 p.m. "It was dark out. That was pretty cool. It just gave a different perspective to the bus ride. It was a weird mood."
Some drivers turned on lights so children could do their homework or read as buses inched along. Aides on special education buses sang songs or organized games. Other drivers switched from traffic reports to music on the radio. Some were in traffic so long they were forced to stop to give children bathroom breaks.
And just about every driver got the same endless question: When are we going to get home? The reply: We're doing the best we can.
"Just to go one block . . . took one and a half hours," Montgomery bus driver Bob Herron said. "It was nothing but a crawl."
About 80 percent of Montgomery County's 1,000 buses have two-way radios, and dispatchers were able to transmit messages and progress reports and assure nervous students that their parents had been called. Those without radios stopped at schools to phone the dispatch center, officials said.
In Prince George's, dozens of parents called to complain that they had not been informed of the delays and had no way of finding out where their children were or when they'd be home. Of the school system's 1,100 buses, 35 were still on the roads after 9 p.m. and 19, carrying about 100 students, were out past 11 p.m.
"The problem we had was the system not being able adequately and speedily to respond to parents," Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts said. "I apologize and regret it. As soon as we have better technology, we'll do a better job."
About 73 percent of Prince George's public school students are bused, many of them cross-county for magnet programs and desegregation efforts. The delays were worst for them, Metts said.
"It was ridiculous. I went to sleep," said Keyona McLaughlin, 16, a student at High Point High in Beltsville who said it took three hours to make what normally is a 15-minute trip home. "I didn't get home until after 9:30 p.m. . . . I was glad to see home."
In Montgomery, where about 35 school buses were on the road for hours longer than scheduled, bus driver Dennis Day took home his last student, who is 4 years old, at 9:30 p.m.
"He cried some, but he was a real trouper," Day said. "I just kept reassuring him that he would get home."
Another Montgomery child, who mistakenly boarded the wrong school bus, didn't get home until after 9 p.m.
"I was scared stiff," said Cindy Arnson, whose son, Zach, a sixth-grader at the Takoma Park Middle School magnet, stayed late for band and then boarded a bus heading not toward Chevy Chase, but far north.
Zach had called at 5 p.m. to let his mom know buses were running about 2 1/2 hours late, so she figured she didn't have to worry until about 7:30. "When 8 o'clock came and I found out he was in Germantown, I just flipped," his mother said.
But bus dispatchers--who by a process of elimination and through radio contact had located Zach--arranged for another bus driver to drop him directly at his front door. "I was a nervous wreck, but I have to say the transportation office handled the situation extremely well," Arnson said.
Indeed, many parents said they were glad bus drivers got their children home safely despite the treacherous conditions.
"It was not a big issue," Brenda Thoman said of the 1 1/2-hour delay that her 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, experienced coming home from Eleanor Roosevelt High. "They did the best they could. I prefer her to be safe."
And Rebecca, a sophomore, found an upside to the delays.
"When our teachers asked us where our homework was today," she said, "we said we didn't have time to do it."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.