Major snowstorm Gail blankets America

Winter storm Gail rolled into the Northeast on Wednesday at a key moment in the coronavirus pandemic, days after the start of the US vaccination campaign and in the thick of a virus surge that has throngs of people seeking tests per day.

Snow was falling from northern Virginia to points north of New York City by late afternoon. The storm was poised to drop as much as 0.6 metres of snow in some places by Thursday, and the pandemic added new complexities to officials' preparations - deciding whether to close testing sites, figuring out how to handle plowing amid outdoor dining platforms in New York City streets, redefining school snow days to mean another day of learning from home, and more.

"Our theme today ought to be, 'If it's not one thing, it's another,'" New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said as he gave residents storm guidance that's new this year - mask up if you help your neighbours shovel.

The National Weather Service said the storm was "set to bring an overabundance of hazards from the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast," including freezing rain and ice in the mid-Atlantic, heavy snow in the New York City area and southern New England, strong winds and coastal flooding, and possibly even severe thunderstorms and some tornadoes in North Carolina's Outer Banks.

In Virginia, the salvo of snow, sleet and freezing rain knocked out power to several thousand homes and businesses by Wednesday afternoon. The state police said that as of 3 pm, troopers had responded to approximately 200 crashes, including a wreck on Interstate 81 that killed a North Carolina man.

The heaviest snowfall was expected in central Pennsylvania, where forecasters in the state capital of Harrisburg said a six-decade-old record for a December snowfall could potentially be broken. But some areas from West Virginia to Maine could get 0.3 metres of snow - for some, more than they saw all last winter. In New York City, officials braced for the biggest storm in about three years.

"Take this seriously," Mayor de Blasio warned residents.

In addition to the usual rolling out of plows and salt spreaders, the nation's most populous city was adding some pandemic-era preparations to its list, such as closing city-run testing sites Wednesday afternoon and suspending outdoor dining in the sometimes elaborate spaces that now occupy parking spaces outside some restaurants.

The eateries aren't being required to break down their wooden enclosures and other structures for outdoor dining, currently the only form of restaurant table service allowed in the city. But they are being told to secure outdoor furniture, remove heaters and take other steps to make way for plows.

The city's snow-removal chief, Acting Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson, said the agency had been planning and training since summer to maneuver around the structures.

Major snowstorm Gail blankets America
Major snowstorm Gail blankets America
Major snowstorm Gail blankets America
Major snowstorm Gail blankets America

First big snowfall of the season turns out to be a disappointment for schoolchildren

Even before the first flakes fell, New York City's first big snowfall of the season was doomed to be a gloomy disappointment for more than a million of its schoolchildren.

COVID-19 has robbed a lot from children in 2020, and in many school districts in northern climes it is now stealing the magic of the snow day - waking up to find that school has been canceled and the day will be filled with snowballs and snow angels.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made it clear as the city began preparing for up to a foot of snow by Thursday that students there - including ones still attending classes in person - will be expected to log in and work as usual.

Kids have lost too much instruction time already, he said, though he admitted to mixed feelings.

"As a parent - and I was a kid once myself - I have to say I feel a little sad that the snow day we used to all know may be gone because it's really not going to be a day off if we have a snow day," he said.

Not everywhere, though.

In Washington Township, New Jersey, students should keep turning their pajamas inside out, putting spoons under their pillows and flushing ice cubes down the toilet in hopes of swaying the snow gods.

Superintendent Jeffrey Mohre says remote learning or not, he'll still call snow days.

"Easiest decision I've had to make all year," Mohre said Wednesday from Long Valley, New Jersey, where forecasters were warning of 12 to 20 inches of snow.

It came down to wanting to encourage "the anticipation and the excitement and the wonderment that so many of us experienced as children - and it is those things that make snow days such memorable childhood events," he said.

"Go build a snowman," was the instruction from like-minded Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson at Jefferson County schools in Charles Town, West Virginia, where school was closed Wednesday.

"Take pictures of your kids in snow hats they will outgrow by next year and read books that you have wanted to lose yourself in, but haven't had the time," Shay Gibson wrote on the district's website.

"We will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday." Even before the pandemic, the idea of cancelling school in bad weather had been under threat as districts assigned students their own iPads and laptops that let them do lessons at home.

Districts in Vermont, Michigan, upstate New York and elsewhere floated the idea of doing away with snow days when they put together pandemic back-to-school plans that included either full- or part-time learning from home.

The debate is over whether it's a break schools can afford amid worry that students are falling behind. School districts around the country are fretting over big jumps in the number of students failing classes and many teachers say it is harder than ever to get students to turn in their work.

"It's so complicated this year," Boston mother Keri Rodrigues said.

Yes, kids are not getting enough instructional time. "But my kids are also kids," said Rodrigues, whose five boys are between 7 and 13 years old. She said she intended to let her children have the day off, even if the school system went ahead with a day of remote learning.

"The first time we get a really big snow, you are crazy if you think I'm going to be able to get them to concentrate on remote learning," she said. "We will catch up on what needs to be in their brains the day after." Rodrigues' 8-year-old son, Daniel Lorenzo, said he expected to use some of his free time "to throw snowballs at my brothers." Meanwhile, in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, schools will have remote school through the storm no matter how bad it is, to the disappointment of Carrie Rogers and her 8th-grade daughter.

"2020's been rough on everybody, especially kids," said Rogers, who worries snow days will be gone forever, even after in-person school resumes.

If snow days go away, so would the fun of calling them, which some administrators have raised to a video art form.

A memorable one from last year had Swartz Creek, Michigan, Superintendent Ben Mainka and Principal Jim Kitchen in sunglasses, singing their closure announcement to the tune of "Hallelujah." The chorus: "It's a snow day, a winter cold day, stay home and just play, it's a great family day." Vivett Dukes, a parent and public school teacher in New York City, said she has fond childhood memories of listening for her school to close as the snow piled up outside.

"Snow days are a part of our life. It's something we look forward to. We're listening out for the news report. Is our school closed? How many inches? It's actually a form of bonding," said Dukes, who teaches ninth-grade English at School of the Future.

Heavy snow was falling from Virginia, across Ohio and Pennsylvania and into New England on Wednesday and was expected to last in many places through the late morning.

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