CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools fourth-grader Ryan Eaddy, bundled in bright pink snow gear and headed for a sledding hill, had just one word Wednesday for the first snow day off she's ever experienced – "Awesome!"
The 9-year-old joined her siblings and neighbors in making the most of Chicago's first snow day since 1999, frolicking in the more than 20 inches dumped by the third-worst storm in the city's history. Other students huddled at home on a free day featuring howling winds and sheets of snow that at times made outside play painful.
In some cases, being indoors offered little comfort as families faced a day at home without heat or the free school breakfasts and lunches they rely on each weekday. They prepared for another after officials said school would be closed for a second day Thursday, an unexpected announcement in a city – and school system – that prides itself on its winter fortitude.
Reluctance to cancel classes in the nation's third-largest school district during the past 12 years hasn't been surprising. Chicago Public Schools has more than 409,000 students, 86 percent of whom come from low-income families. Despite the closures, school buildings were ordered to remain open in case students stopped by for meals. No one took them up on the offer Wednesday.
Officials said 26 school buildings remained without electricity Wednesday afternoon, and noted that temperatures were expected to plunge below zero while many city streets remained impassable.
"Because of the severity of this blizzard it is very clear that many of our personnel, teachers, and especially our students are simply physically unable to get to our schools," said interim schools chief Terry Mazany. He said officials would decide Thursday whether to keep schools closed on Friday.
Parent Wanda Hopkins said her 12-year-old daughter had no interest in venturing outdoors after spending the night without electricity or heat and piled under blankets.
"Some families are trying to make the best of it by taking the children out there and sliding in the snow, but the bottom line is, when do we go back to school, do we know? No," said Hopkins, assistant director for the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education.
Hopkins worried about children who rely on schools for their meals and parents who rely on them for child care.
"(For parents), will this be a snow day with pay or without pay? Because this will put a big hole in the check," she said.
While Hopkins' daughter was at home warming up, Marie Donovan's 16-year-old daughter stayed in to catch up on reading and long-term projects.
"For us, it's been a day to catch up and dig in in ways we don't normally get to dig in," Donovan said, guessing that many magnet school students like her daughter were doing the same. But, she added ruefully, "they've got Facebook running in the background, and the music on iTunes."
After finishing the extra homework she was assigned the day before, 11-year-old Emma Unterseher had a short-term project in mind: piling snow on the stairs to her garage's roof, so she and her siblings could sled down.
"I like freaked out I was so happy," Unterseher said of learning about the snow day. "I was jumping up and down with all my siblings."
When they weren't playing in the snow, students were working – shoveling sidewalks, digging out stranded cars and even the occasional city bus. Many were elated that a second rare snow day was coming.
"This is so fun, these guys are having a blast," said Gregory Sneed, who carried Eaddy, his neighbor, on his shoulders. "A fun day on CPS," he yelled, drawing a chorus of cheers from the gathered children.