Years ago, before he took a job as director of transportation for the Prince George's County school system, John Huffman enjoyed a winer snowfall as much as anyone. Now he hates snow - the thought of it, the sight of it, the feel of it.
Snow, to John Huffman, means that he has to wake up in the middle of the night, make 10 or 15 telephone calls to groggy colleagues, drive around the slippery streets of Adelphi and West Hyattsville checking road conditions, recommend to his boss whether the schools should open on time, open late, close early or not open at all, and then, having done all that, sit back and listen to dozens of "You-blew-it's" and "I-told-you-so's" from angry and all-knowing parents.
"It gets to you after a while," said Huffman, after going through the exhausting process that led to the closing of Prince George's schools yesterday morning. "There's nothing but grief from November to April."
There is at least one public servant like John Huffman in every school jurisdiction in the Washington area. These are the people who do the dirty work that results in that crucial and always controversial radio announcement on snowy winter mornings telling you whether your kids will be home all day.
"A lot of people seem to think we just get up in the morning and turn thumpsup or thumbs down," said George Hamel, public information officer for the Fairfax County schools. "There's an awful lot more to it than whether the superintendent's wife can get her car out of the driveway."
It does not always seem that way to the thousands of area residents who grew up in points north, where blizzards, ice-storms, sub-zero temperatures and, to be sure, caravans of snowplows are a regular part of life. "The schools close here." said one smug ex-northerner, "the moment the first flake hits the Washington Momument."
The people who keep the schools open or closed argue that fear has nothing to do with it. Money does, indirectly. "We don't have as much money in the budget for snow removal as Buffalo or Chicago," noted one Prince George's official.
"Snow removal is usually not one of our major concerns, because - and I'm looking outside as I say this - it doesn't snow that often. So the roads aren't going to be as passable when it snows, and the schools are going to close more often."
As of yesterday, the Prince George's public schools had closed twice already this winter, and have either opened late or closed early six times. The figures in every area school system except the District of Columbia are about the same. The D.C. schools closed once in January, and that was for the first time in several years.
"We try at all cost to keep the schools open," said school official Edward Winner, "especially if the adult work force is not let out early." Winner said one important factor in their reluctance to close the city schools is the fact that they provide more than 71,000 free breakfasts and lunches to needy school children.
In Prince George's and Fairfax, the concern for school children leads to an opposite result - a reluctance to keep the schools open in foul weather. These two systems, with large suburban and rural areas, rely heavily on school buses to get children to school. Prince George's has 800 school buses running four shifts each day; Fairfax has 650.
"The parents are putting the safety of their children - 80,000 of them - in our hands," said Huffman. "It's an enormous responsibility and one we take seriously. In a situation like that, we prefer to err on the side of caution."
Considering what Huffman goes through every night and morning during the snow season, it is a harsh judgment for anyone to say that he has "erred." This is what Huffman did from 3 a.m. to 11 yesterday morning.
The alarm rang precisely at three, stirring Huffman from a dreamless, anxious sleep. Before getting dressed, he called the school security office in Largo, the county public works department, the office dispatcher, seven coworkers and a private weather forecasting firm in College Station, Pa.
By 3:30 a.m., Huffman and his seven coworkers were out on the streets, personally testing the road conditions in the regions around their homes. On more than one occasion, Huffman or one of his colleagues have concluded that the conditions were poor with the uncontestable proof that their car was stuck in a snowbank. Yesterday was not one of those times.
Sometime around 5 a.m., Huffman met up with his coworkers, garnering opinions from each of them as to whether the roads were in good enough condition for the 800 buses.
"It's a very difficult decision," said Huffman. "It may have been snowing all night, or it may be just beginning to snow. Sometimes it's clear that things are bad, but a lot of times you have to make a judgment call."
That judgment this morning was that the conditions were bad and getting worse. Huffman called Supt. Edward J. Feeney and recommended that he close the schools. Feeney agreed, and called his press secretary, who then called 30 radio stations, wire services, television stations and newspaper with the word, which was heard by thousands of parents on the morning news.
It is at that point, when the word enters the home, that the complaints and second-guesses begin. And, once in a while, that is also when confusion begins. Last week a woman in Fairfax charged onto a bus and hauled off 18 kindergartners, saying she just heard word on the radio that Fairfax kindergartens had been closed. "She had the right grade, but wrong county," recalled Hamel. "It was Prince William that closed the kindergartens."