To close school or tough out brutally cold weather? Chicago faces a hard decision.

Sylvie Smith and her younger sister marched briskly through the unplowed sheet of snow that blanketed the grounds of Bernhard Moos Elementary School in Humboldt Park on Monday and impatiently pushed the intercom button. Smith’s sister, a student at Moos, stood behind Smith as they waited for the door to open.

“The car broke down today,” Smith said. The two sisters took a rideshare to Moos, more than 10 miles from their Rogers Park neighborhood, to make it to school. “She’s an hour and a half late so hopefully she’s not in trouble. And I have to go to work after this.”

The Smith sisters were among the beleaguered residents battling the morning commute after seven inches of snow blanketed Chicago from Sunday evening through early Monday.

At a school in an unplowed residential neighborhood in Rogers Park, a principal and a parent volunteer helped push a family’s stuck SUV that was blocking a line of cars dropping off late students. All around the city, buses arrived late, educators parked awkwardly in snowy lots behind schools, and families battled snowdrifts and unplowed roads to deliver their children and get to work.

During brutal weather weeks, Chicago schools face a quandary: call off classes and force the majority low-income population they serve to scramble for child care, or tough it out amid snow and ice, frigid temperatures, and poor driving conditions that jeopardize safety of educators and families.

The chilly morning scene outside Moos Elementary in Humboldt Park. (Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago )

Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged the tightrope on Monday at a press conference about the city’s emergency preparedness. “While cancellations can be disruptive, we will not hesitate to cancel classes if we think we are unable to safely receive students,” she said.

To complicate matters, the district’s budget crisis years ago led it to privatize janitorial contracts, so schools that used to have full-time engineers and custodians to sprinkle salt and shovel sidewalks now rely on part-time and contract support. On Monday, some schools were stuck waiting on private contractors who didn’t show up before the bell rang.

At Finkl Elementary in Little Village, a teacher said that as of noon, no one had come to plow the school parking lot.

Outside a Humboldt Park school, a snow remover who preferred not to give his name yelled over the whir of his machine, “We need more help.”

Those contractors work through Aramark, SodexoMagic, and other private firms that, since 2014, have received more than $400 million in contracts from Chicago schools. In addition to tasks like cleaning schools and eradicating rodents, they are charged with landscaping and snow removal.

A Chicago schools spokeswoman told Chalkbeat that she was waiting on updated reports from facilities staff, but that no weather-related problems, such as uncleared snow, had yet been reported to the central office.

But Christine Geovanis, a spokeswoman from the Chicago Teachers Union, said by email that the group had received reports of “lack of plowing on CPS property, shoveling issues where people can’t get from their cars to the building and sidewalks not being cleaned up.”

She added, “We know that schools have had problems with inadequate temperatures. With deficient investment in facilities management, those problems could intensify this week.”

More bad weather to come

Monday is just the start of what promises to be a frigid, and difficult to predict, week. For some, the concern was not snow, but the uncertainty of whether schools would stay open or close later in the week.

“Today the weather is unpleasant but I’m wondering if classes will be cancelled tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” said Gabriela De La Rosa, whose daughter is a fourth grader at Moos.

The district emailed parents about 9:30 p.m. Sunday that schools would be open Monday. The email, in English and Spanish, said the district would closely monitor weather reports. A wind chill warning was issued for Tuesday night through Thursday morning, plus temperatures are predicted to drop to 20 degrees below zero Wednesday.  

In the email, the school district promised alert educators and families by Tuesday afternoon if it would call off school midweek.

At least two of the charter networks, CICS and Noble, said they follow CPS’ policy for closing schools in bad weather.

Marsha Bradley usually takes her grandchild to pre-K classes at Goethe Elementary School in Logan Square. She hadn’t heard yet from the school about whether classes would be cancelled. But if they were, she said, “I’m the grandmother, so you’re looking at child care.”

A parent at Lincoln Park Elementary School, Emily Gray Tedrowe, faced another tough decision: whether to cancel Lincoln Park’s book fair that was scheduled to start mid-week.

“It’s super important to us,” said Tedrowe, because the book fair supports the school library — another critical resource that has been hit by budget cuts at many Chicago schools. “Honestly, it doesn’t make sense to do all the work of setting it up in our gym and to have a poorly attended fair, since it is one of our big PTA fundraisers.”

By mid-morning, Tedrowe had contacted the book fair company — Anderson’s, which is based in Aurora — and decided to postpone the fair.

Here’s what others are saying about Chicago’s snow-day decision-making: