I’m figuring that lots of parents got up this morning like I did and immediately checked to see if MCPS was delaying the opening of school. After all, snow had been forecast for between the hours of 4 and 9 a.m. and even though there was not a flake on the ground in Silver Spring at 6:10 a.m., I figured chances were good there’d be a delay.

I was wrong. School was starting on time and so I roused my two daughters to get ready for the 7 a.m. bus to our middle and high schools. At 6:55, we headed out the door for the drive to the bus stop and stepped straight into a driving snow storm.

Although the snow only fell for about 20 minutes, the roads certainly were slick and snow-covered in my neighborhood. But by 8 a.m., when elementary school kids were getting ready to read to bus stops, the snow was gone, the sun was out and the roads were just wet.

No doubt Montgomery County Public Schools officials heard from parents today about the decision to start school on time this morning, just as they heard from parents last Friday about the decision to close schools two hours early because snow was forecast for later that afternoon. To be fair, no other local districts delayed school openings this morning, either.

When it comes to winter weather, MCPS is more likely than not to be criticized for its decisions. School officials say that student and staff safety is paramount when making a decision about school closings or delays, but that often fails to appease parents who are left scrambling to arrange child care, sometimes at midday, or calling the office to say they won’t be getting to work on time. To these parents, it seems like MCPS officials “never call it right,” as my neighbor said this morning.

MCPS is used to that, according to spokesman Dana Tofig.

“We hear from parents practically every time we close schools,” he said this week.

Deciding whether to close or delaying the start of is a complicated process that involves close monitoring of weather forecasts, consultation with county officials and neighboring school districts as well as inspections of local road conditions, Tofig said. And it’s not just the prediction of snow that’s considered; officials also must consider how quickly local transportation crews will be able to treat roads and MCPS crews can clear school lots.

“We can’t wait until the snow starts falling. You have to make the call based on the information we have,” Tofig said. “We don’t see snow and freak out. It’s about the condition of the roads.”

And the decision has to be made hours before bad weather may start because MCPS needs to inform parents, students and staff about what’s happening. So that means news about school closings or two-hour delays is broadcast by about 5:15 a.m. and early-dismissal decisions are made by 10:30 a.m.

The decision to close schools early last Friday, hours before flakes began falling, set off the usual round of criticism from parents.

“It’s unbelievable,” one parent wrote on the listserv for a local elementary school.  “I have spent one week in Scandinavia with a half-meter of snow and minus temperature. Imagine kids not going to school for four months in Sweden or Finland. …I am now in snowed-under Belgium and schools are…open. Of course.”

Others questioned whether MCPS should revise its weather policy to allow some schools to stay open if their neighborhoods aren’t going to be as hard hit by bad weather as other parts of the district.

But MCPS can’t consider closing some schools and leaving others open because of the nature of the district’s programs, Tofig said. Numerous students don’t attend schools in their neighborhoods; those in magnet programs travel to other parts of the county to attend school, for example.

“It’s not just about our students,” he said. “Our staff has to get home safely. Just because a teacher works in Silver Spring doesn’t mean she lives in Silver Spring, We have to make sure our staff and students get home safely.

“Do we err on the side of safety? Absolutely. No question about it.”

As for last Friday’s decision to close schools early? Parents might recall that the snow did start falling just as schools began letting out students and buses were hitting the roads.

That time, it seems, MCPS got it right.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com