District parents, teachers and principals criticized Superintendent Paul L. Vance yesterday for deciding to open schools and then reversing course at 8 a.m. and ordering them closed.

Parents who dropped off their children at school complained that they had to double back and pick them up. Teachers said they tried to venture to work -- in some cases getting stuck in the snow -- only to learn later that they did not need to show up. Principals complained that they had to receive children, then call their parents to send them home.

"They don't know what they are doing; that's what this tells me," said Joan Gibson of Southeast Washington, whose children, Tyrone, 13, and Torian, 11, attend D.C. public schools. "They had long enough time to have somebody there to make a decision long before they did."

Decisions about closing schools in bad weather always arouse the ire of some parents -- those who believe the school system is being too conservative or those who believe it is not careful enough. But Vance's flip-flop yesterday -- a day when every other Washington area school district was closed -- seemed to upset every constituency.

Vance said in an interview that in the future, he will try to make a final decision earlier. Most D.C. public school classes start at 8:45 a.m., but some schools start earlier, and others have care programs that start before 7 a.m. Many private D.C. schools with early start times follow the school system's lead on closings.

Vance said he understood parents' anger. "They have every right in the world to be angry and to be disappointed in my performance," Vance said. "I'm certainly not necessarily proud of it."

Among those inconvenienced was Sherry D. Freeman, a federal government worker who lives in Southeast Washington. She left home yesterday morning with her nephew, Darius, 7, and dropped him off at Montgomery Elementary in Northwest for a before-school program.

Twenty minutes after arriving at work, Freeman got a phone call telling her that Darius needed to be picked up. She scrambled to find someone else to retrieve the boy and take him to her office. With advance notice, Freeman said, Darius would have been able to stay home with her daughter, Michelle, 16, who attends Eastern Senior High School.

Freeman said it appears that school officials follow a "rule book" filled with tips on how to inconvenience parents. "I think the rule book says, 'We will do as much as we can to put everybody out,' " she said.

At a number of schools, students arrived and were fed breakfast while staff members waited for parents to arrive and pick up the children. But principals said they thought the situation should have been handled better.

"We probably could have made a wiser decision about this matter . . . so we're able to get the heads up to everyone -- our staffs as well as our students," said Dale A. Talbert, principal of Maury Elementary in Northeast Washington.

Even before schools were closed, a number of teachers called in to say they would not be able to make it to work. Robert C. Zugby, a biology teacher at Wilson Senior High in Northwest, said he got in his Pontiac Firebird and could not make it out of his Greenbelt driveway, which runs uphill.

Zugby said that "with every system in the area closing and the weather [people] forecasting no improvement . . . it should have been obvious that the system shouldn't have been open to begin with."

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the last-minute decision made the school system look foolish.

"In one fell swoop, they just associated themselves with 20 years of D.C. public schools making similar types of mistakes," Fenty said. "It just looks so bad that all the other jurisdictions made quick, efficient decisions."

Vance, who is sending letters of apology to parents, said he made his original decision about 5 a.m. to keep schools open after briefings on road and school conditions. He said he concluded that students would be better off in school than out and noted that many live within walking distance. He also said he wanted to make sure that students had access to breakfast and lunch. Nearly 70 percent of the system's students receive free and reduced-price meals.

"For many, many of our youngsters, it's going to be the only hot and nutritious meal they will receive," he said.

But Vance said he became more concerned about the condition of the roads when he drove through the city and then met with his staff at 7:30 a.m. He said he grew especially concerned after a staff member reported an advisory from the Maryland State Police telling motorists to avoid the roads if possible, and a new weather report saying that the snow could change to sleet and freezing rain. Many school employees live in the suburbs.

But Maryland State Police did not issue a new advisory yesterday morning. Sgt. Thornnie Rouse said his agency put out a statement Wednesday warning motorists not to drive unless necessary. And Steve Zubrick, a science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Sterling, said his agency's forecast did not change between 2:45 and 10 a.m.

School officials said the forecast Vance cited may have come from a different forecasting service. And they said they did not learn about the police advisory until yesterday.

Jeremy Singer, a Wilson High School math teacher, tells Keila Castro, 15, that school has been canceled for the day. Superintendent Paul L. Vance's flip-flip on whether to hold classes in the District complicated matters for parents, who had to make belated arrangements for their children. Some teachers were stuck in the snow while trying to get to work.