If a snowstorm threatens from Lake Ontario, no one watches the weather more carefully than Cindy Hogan. It's part of her job as transportation supervisor for the Oswego City Schools in upstate New York.
When her alarm goes off 3:30 a.m., Ms. Hogan pours herself a mug of hot tea and checks the weather reports.
By 4:15, she's on the road in her Jeep, bumping along uncleared streets and talking by two-way radio with two crew members. They split the district into three sections and set off to test conditions.
By 5 a.m., they meet at Hogan's office to share their findings, and then she phones Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood. It's his call whether or not school will open that day.
With a January snowfall of more than 100 inches, and wind chills below minus 25 F, Oswego students have not gone a full week of school since before Christmas. The district, which built five snow days into its calendar, has already had 10 emergency closings.
High school students missed the New York Regents exam, which will have to be made up in June, says Oswego district spokesman Bill Foley. The school board canceled February break; instead, students will be making up lost class time.
Around the country, school districts are struggling to make up for an unusual number of days lost to snow, ice, hurricanes, and flooding. Some, like the Prince William County Schools in Virginia, added 10 minutes to the school day. Others have extended the school year, cut into winter break, or will hold classes on holidays such as Presidents' Day.
Superintendents, who must decide whether it's safe to open, face the most heat for their decisions.
But because weather patterns are unpredictable, even the most informed decision can go astray. The result is every superintendent's nightmare.
Earlier this month in Stafford, Va., two high school students were killed on their way to school when the car they were riding in slid off the road. Stafford County's superintendent had called for a two-hour delay, but temperatures dropped and roads became icy. Parents were angry and frustrated that Stafford hadn't closed its schools as quickly as did neighboring counties.
For this reason, most superintendents err on the side of caution.
Charles Ecker, superintendent of the Carroll County schools in Maryland, says people do try to second-guess him. Last week, he called a snow day only to have the skies clear. "I tell people, 'Give me your phone number and we'll get you up at 5 a.m. and have you come ride with us.' " He hasn't had any takers.
Districts take liability concerns seriously, says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. They are concerned about lawsuits if a student or staff member is injured en route to school.
Also, as districts consolidate, more students are traveling many miles by bus, increasing the likelihood of accidents on slick roads. In some metro areas, teachers can't afford to live in the community, and must commute from greater distances.
On days when schools close, the hardest hit are working parents who must scramble to make alternative plans. With more schools offering on-site childcare, as well as before- and after-school programs, and - in poorer districts - free meals, many families are affected by the loss of such services.
Parents often aren't aware of the pressures on districts, which are mandated by state legislatures to hold classes 180 to 183 days a year. If snow days cut into that total, schools must make them up, or ask their state for a waiver.
Making up days is a no-win situation, say superintendents. Any decision will throw a wrench into someone's plans.
To help officials decide how to make up three extra snow days, Carroll County schools asked the public for feedback. They received 1,383 responses by the cut-off Feb. 11. The school board chose to hold classes on Feb. 16 and 17 - on President's Day and an in-service day - and will ask the state to waive the third day.
"Each year, the consequences of missing school grow," says Mr. Hunter. Of particular concern is finding enough time to prepare kids for achievement tests. "Because there is so much more riding on these tests, every day counts," he says.
Mr. Foley agrees. "When school's closed, the kids get out of the rhythm. The continuity is gone."
Sixth grade teacher Ed Fayette in Oswego says it comes down to priorities. "The kids lose some of the fun stuff, it's true, because there are some things we just have to do."
Mr. Fayette says that while snow is a fact of life here, the kids still get excited when the flakes fly. "They love getting out of school; they don't think far enough ahead to realize they'll have to make up the time. It's a learning experience when they hear that February break has been canceled."