If schools are closed and conditions are not sufficiently treacherous, parents lambaste the city for leaving them to deal with child care while the adults still have to show up to their jobs.
If schools remain open, and the conditions are not sufficiently tranquil, parents lambaste the city for forcing them to traverse the streets in perilous conditions.
“I learned very early that no one is happy with a snow day decision,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has been leading the city since 2015. “So I have to make the decision that I think is best for all students, staff and the people of the District of Columbia.”
Across the Washington region, city, county and school officials sometimes pull all-nighters to assess weather and road conditions and determine whether to call a snow day.
In the District, city agencies track storms, consulting with the National Weather Service and participating in conference calls. The goal is to make a decision by 5 a.m. so families can plan, said Patrick Davis, chief operating officer for D.C. Public Schools.
The D.C. schools chancellor provides a recommendation on the matter, and Bowser makes the final call about canceling class.
Many students in the District rely on transit system buses for their commutes, and if buses can’t operate, schools probably close.
Still, Davis said, closing is a last resort. Many D.C. children eat several meals on weekdays at school, and a snow day could mean little food that day.
On the only snow day during the 2018-2019 academic year, Davis said the city opened 10 schools where any child could grab a free meal.
“It’s obviously a very tough decision to make,” Davis said. “We want kids in classrooms every day learning, but we need to make sure that they can get there safely.”
In the suburbs, county officials also spend the night on conference calls, scrambling to figure out how a storm might wreak havoc on commutes. Ice — not snow — can prove a more decisive factor in determining whether the roads are safe.
And the suburbs — which typically cover substantially more acreage than the District’s 100 square miles — present their own set of blustery challenges.
In sprawling Prince George’s County — a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas — it might be blizzard-white in one section and barely snowing in another.
“You may get light snow in the south but heavy snow in the north,” said Barry L. Stanton, chief operating officer of Prince George’s County Public Schools.
The same goes for Fairfax County, the most populous county in Virginia. Canceling classes at just a few schools is not an option because transportation and after-school programs require traveling across neighborhoods, posing logistical challenges.
In Montgomery County, home to Maryland’s largest school system, crews are often out driving to gauge snow and ice on the streets. There have been a few instances when the decision has been tough, and Superintendent Jack Smith has headed out in his SUV to test the conditions himself.
The mere arrival of snow season is enough to make a school official in the Mid-Atlantic stressed.
“It’s usually about 30 days of my life where I don’t sleep at all,” said Jeff Platenberg, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation for Fairfax County Public Schools. “When people are getting excited about the holidays, I’m cringing because I know it’s coming.”
Davis said the District is ready for winter’s arrival. Staff members are reviewing their snow emergency plans and have communication blasts ready to send to families in the case of a snow day.
But Davis has a wish for the upcoming winter season.
“I hope it’s a dry winter,” he said.