Photo by Christina’s Play Place on Flickr.

I once asked a retired school superintendent who had worked all over the Northeast what was the hardest part of his job? Knowing all the challenges of running large urban school systems, I was surprised when he said it was the wrenching decision of whether to close schools for weather-related reasons.

Closing schools means lost critical learning time and parents having to provide impromptu child care, often missing work. Keeping schools open can be dangerous for children and staff trying to get to school or resulting in them getting stuck at school. (The superintendent I spoke with recounted horror stories of a school full of people huddling in a gym with limited food and no electricity).

Suburban school systems are more vulnerable than DC. The city tends to get slightly higher temperatures and less precipitation, but more importantly, a densely settled city should require fewer and shorter motor vehicle trips to transport kids to school.

This is where people in walkable neighborhoods can get their gloat on. (I happily dragged a sled around the corner to pick up fresh groceries during the snowpocalypse of February 2010, while suburbanites survived on canned goods).

But even DC schools have teachers who live in the suburbs and students exercising choice who attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

As a New England native, I would say as long as cars and buses can move (albeit slowly), they can get to school. (The only hazard for kids who walk to school was the strong temptation to stop and play in the snow). That usually meant anything less than one foot of snow was fine. Black ice, the worst non-snow impediment, slows down vehicles but doesn’t stop them.

There will be car crashes, but there are crashes every day on the roads. Just drive carefully. Be flexible on arrival times. Fear of power outage or actual power outage or loss of water is reason to close a school. Anything less, however, is just wimping out. If we can’t find our way to school during messy but passable winter weather, we should re-evaluate our school density and planning.

What is your cutoff? When is it too cold or too messy on the roads to keep schools open?

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Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica.