Attendance was still off at Washington area schools yesterday, but closer to normal levels, as many nervous parents weighed the risks of the sniper's threat to children and decided to send their kids to school.
But the decisions were not easy -- and came at a price. Across the region, parents stood with children at bus stops or drove them to and from schools, even if it meant missing some work. The parents scanned woods and streets near campuses, and consciously positioned their bodies as shields.
Teachers, some of whom said their nerves are beginning to fray, were just as protective. "The poor little things are racing across the lawn to get to the front door, and we are racing with them," said one teacher, who spoke on the condition that she and her school not be named. "The children are so frightened and stressed out, and so are we."
Most area schools operated under Code Blue restrictions, keeping students indoors at all times and under the careful watch of staff. In Montgomery County, where public school attendance averaged 88 percent yesterday, some school buses were practically empty. Stephen Rauscher, the system's transportation director, said he hadn't seen anything like it before.
"We have a fair number of parents who've opted to drive their children," he said.
Montgomery schools received a $250,000 federal grant yesterday to help pay for communication and security devices for school buses. The grant, announced by State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, is part of the federal School Emergency Response to Violence program.
In the District, some angry parents wished their children had the option to ride a school bus yesterday. They were upset over canceled bus service for special education students. Normally, more than 3,800 special education students are transported, many to private schools in Maryland and Virginia; the school system does so because it is unable to provide required programs in-house.
Paul Fekete, whose 9-year-old son, Alexander, attends a private school in Annandale, said the decision defied logic. "Why aren't they being encouraged to go to school, which is the safest place to be?" he said.
Superintendent Paul L. Vance said he canceled the bus service because he was concerned about the safety of students in suburban communities. It will resume today, he said.
At two Montgomery elementary schools near Tuesday's shooting site, attendance was in the 70 percent range yesterday, far higher than the 10 percent figure the day before, officials said.
Both schools, Strathmore and Bel Pre, briefly went into frightening Code Red status early Tuesday afternoon -- with students crouching under desks or lying on classroom floors -- after teachers reported hearing gunshots nearby. Yesterday, officials said the shots came from a gun salute at the ceremonial burial of a war veteran at nearby Gate of Heaven Cemetery.
Montgomery schools spokesman Brian J. Porter said students were not being penalized for their absences. "We understand what parents are going through right now," he said. "We're going to be working very cautiously and very sympathetically with each and every parent."
Other school systems, however, operate under different rules.
In Loudoun County, where 95.7 percent of the children were in school yesterday, parents are being advised that they can keep their children home if they feel it's safer. But Virginia law requires students who have missed more than 15 days to withdraw.
"We tell parents to please take your time, but know there is a deadline," said schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard.
Many parents said the question of whether to send kids to school yesterday posed a real dilemma.
"I'm very fearful. I wanted my kids to stay home, but my husband and I decided we have to move forward," said Chon Davis, who split work shifts with her husband Tuesday to keep their children home but sent them to school yesterday. "But I don't believe they are any closer to catching this sniper. And I don't know if they ever will."
Jacqueline Donnell, 32, wrestled with whether to send her 8-year-old son, Johnathan, to school yesterday in Aspen Hill -- near where bus driver Conrad E. Johnson was fatally shot Tuesday. By the time she decided, Johnathan was hours late.
"If I send my son out and he is harmed, then I've failed him. But if I can't feed him or pay the rent, then I've failed him as well," Donnell said as she walked down the tree-lined suburban street with Johnathan about 10:30 a.m.
Donnell, a single mother who works in the District as a paralegal, said she has been a bundle of nerves since the sniper shootings began Oct. 2. When Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose read the sniper's words -- "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time" -- the hairs on the back of her neck rose. She has been on edge ever since.
Several of the shooting sites are part of her everyday world. She shops at Shoppers Food Warehouse and at Michaels and passes the two gas stations on Connecticut Avenue on her way to work every morning. And on Tuesday, she was set to take a Ride On bus at 7:10 a.m. from the same bus stop where Johnson was shot.
Tuesday, she kept Johnathan and her 2-year-old son home with her. They baked cookies and watched television. "Every hour that ticked by, I thought, 'That's $25. That's $25. That's $25,' " she said of lost work income. "Sniper or no sniper, my landlord's going to want his rent Friday."
Johnathan said he wants to go to school. He's bored staying at home, even though indoor recess and the reruns of "The Magic School Bus" he's been watching at school aren't much better. But at home, his bed is near the window. "I'm worried I'll get shot," he said.
Still, Donnell had to send him to school yesterday with a note that his current events homework wasn't done. She's been too afraid to go outside to get her newspaper. And in the afternoon, his babysitter didn't meet him at the bus stop. She was too afraid to venture out.
In Prince George's County, Sharon Rice has made a different choice. She didn't send her children to school the past two days. Now, she is even considering sending her son and daughter to Pennsylvania to stay with their grandparents.
Rice's daughter, an eighth-grader at Benjamin Tasker Middle School, didn't go to school for the entire week after a 13-year-old student was shot outside the school Oct. 7. Her son, a third-grader, returned to his school Oct. 9.
"You don't know what to do," she said. "Everyone is saying, 'I don't want to let this guy run my life.' But it's different when you're a parent. I'm a parent first."