Sure, in the 30 years he's worked in suburban Milwaukee schools, Gary Petersen remembers snow days. In fact, he remembers three or four. Five, tops.
The district he runs, Fox Point-Bayside, is more likely to close for cold than for snow. (Cold, incidentally, means 20-below, not including wind chill.)
Across the Washington region, children today are enjoying -- or not enjoying, as the case may be -- their fourth snow day, a result of flakes that stopped falling five days ago. But there are many places across the country where hearing on the radio that your school is closed is a mystical event, because those systems get kids to class every day in far worse weather.
In those places, buses have snow tires. Residents have snowblowers. Counties and villages own many, many snowplows, so that roads are cleared within a day or two of even the largest storm. Unlike in many Washington area jurisdictions, plows owned by the school systems take care of school lots before they help out towns or counties. Frequently, snowy cities prohibit street parking during emergencies.
Most of the country is divided into far smaller school districts, so weather problems in one place don't affect students five towns away. In many Milwaukee districts, kids are picked up house by house, so they can wait at the end of their driveways or even inside. On bad days in Fargo, N.D., parents who live on unplowed rural roads are told on the radio to bring their children to main streets for bus service.
More than anything, these people boast a different attitude, accessorized by toasty-warm fleece and Gore-Tex: They say kids can walk on top of the snow or along the streets, no matter the status of plowing and shoveling.
"Let's face it," Petersen said. "Kids here have snow pants. They have their boots, they have their gloves, they have their mittens. We have the equipment." Even more, he said, "we have the basic understanding."
Today, most of the Washington region's schools remain closed. District schools are opening two hours late, as are those in Falls Church and in Calvert, Charles, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties. A few school systems -- Manassas, Manassas Park, Fredericksburg and St. Mary's County -- opened to students yesterday.
Snowy-town school officials laugh at the idea of closing schools on days it's not even snowing, and they offer rebuttals for every problem cited by Washington area officials:
A transient population that doesn't know how to drive in snow? "First snowstorm of the year, kids spin out," said Neil Driscoll, schools spokesman in Syracuse, N.Y., where it has snowed 89 days of the past 110. "They learn caution real fast."
Treacherously high snowbanks at bus stops? The kids can stand behind them, Driscoll says. "The drivers know where the stops are. They won't pass the kids by."
Administrators accept that some buses will be late and that occasionally the weaker types won't make it to school. So be it. "If you think it's not safe, don't send them, or come get them," said Charles DeRemer, Fargo's assistant superintendent for instruction.
Keeping school open is a matter of necessity, of course -- closing for even two feet of snow would turn out some really lousy test scores in places that get five times that much a year. Listening to those school officials, however, it seems more than anything a matter of pride.
Jack Linehan, a superintendent in suburban Milwaukee, talks about "the advantage of this Midwestern expectation, although," he laments, "there's been a great softening."
"If we had 48 inches of snow, we'd consider that," said Frances Smith, a district administrator nearby. "But I doubt very seriously we would close."
In Buffalo on Wednesday, seven inches of snow fell between 3 and 5 a.m. Assistant Superintendent John Fahey said proudly that school officials were good and ready to open anyway -- until the county banned all unnecessary travel.
On occasion, people in the snowy reaches plead for school to close.
Usually they're 14 years old. When it's their parents calling, Gary Petersen tells them, "Nu-uh. We'll get your kids fine."