A Feb. 28 article said Arlington County schools opened two hours late Thursday. They opened on time. (Published 3/1/03)

Few flakes fell during school hours yesterday, but officials still called it a snow day for many Northern Virginia students, a decision they say was driven by weather forecasts, unplowed back roads and caution.

Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier county schools were closed. Arlington County, Alexandria and Falls Church schools opened two hours late. Meanwhile, District schools, along with most in Maryland, including those in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, remained open. Last night, most school districts said they would decide about today's closings early this morning.

But as teenagers drove to malls and children plopped themselves in front of television, video games and even homework to keep busy for what felt like the umpteenth time, parents wondered what led schools to close in the first place.

"They send the kids to school in the snow yesterday [Wednesday] and keep them home today when it's not snowing," grumbled Debbie Volpicelli, a Fairfax County mother of four. On Wednesday, the county dismissed schoolchildren two hours early and made the decision Wednesday night to close schools yesterday.

"By the time the evening came around, we really had to figure out whether we should make a decision that night or wait till 4 a.m.," said Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier. "Many parents have told us it's very important to know beforehand so they can deal with child care issues."

Fauquier County also declared a snow day Wednesday night after a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer told school officials that the agency would be unable to clear secondary roads sufficiently to run buses safely in the morning, said Mark Cornwell, assistant superintendent in the mostly rural district.

The Prince William County school district announced its decision to close at a Wednesday night board meeting, based on existing conditions and forecasts.

"Community streets are covered," said David Miller, associate superintendent for school services. "And with the children, you don't really want them standing in that type of weather."

As of yesterday, Prince William had used 12 snow days, eight more than it had budgeted. To make up those days, the county will use a March 31 teacher workday and add June 19 and June 20 to the school calendar. The county School Board also voted Wednesday to extend the school day by 30 minutes starting March 17, which essentially adds five instructional days to the calendar.

Because many sidewalks around homes and schools remain unshoveled from last week's snowstorm, some districts said they did not want schoolchildren to risk slipping over the mounds of packed snow and a fresh blanket that had been predicted by early afternoon. As it turns out, heavy snowfall did not begin until about 3:30 p.m., the time most children get off the school bus.

"The question was, once we got the children in school, could we get them home safely?" said Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard. Loudoun officials hit the road at 3:45 a.m. to judge driving conditions. After finding a few slick spots, especially in the more rural western part of the county, school was called off.

Yesterday, Byard said officials were comfortable with the decision to make yesterday the district's 11th weather cancellation of the year. "When the safety of children is involved, you can't take a chance," he said.

Officials in Alexandria and Arlington, where schools opened two hours late yesterday, said they tend not to have as many snow days as their more expansive counterparts.

"We are much more of an urban setting," said Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith. Smith, along with Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry, tends to wait until the wee hours of the morning before making a decision because of the fickle nature of weather. Smith, who rose at 5 a.m. yesterday, said he doesn't tend to close school "unless stuff is in the air or on the ground."

But he adds, "if we err, we err on the side of safety."

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Elaine Rivera and Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.

As rush hour and a new snowstorm set in, a pedestrian slogs through Thomas Circle in downtown Washington. Mary Hundt clears some of the latest snow off her car near Glebe Road and Route 50 in Arlington after arriving at work.