By Chris Francescani and Dave Warner
NEW YORK/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A winter storm that froze the U.S. southeast in its tracks pushed north on Thursday, with driving winds and heavy snow snarling travel and closing many schools from Washington to Connecticut, creating havoc for winter-weary parents.
Hundreds of thousands of Georgia, North and South Carolina residents hit by a heavy blast of ice a day earlier, remained without power as the storm made its way up the coast, closing much of Washington and threatening to drop up to a foot (30 cm) of snow across the region.
The repeated winter storms are taking a toll on schools and families, as snow-related cancellations left parents scrambling to find child-care options and administrators looking at making up lost days by extending classes into the summer.
New York City Public Schools, which have taken only one snow day this year, proved a glaring exception and remained open. Dagna Natoli, 33, who lives in the city's Staten Island borough, said it took her a half-hour to drive her 5-year-old son to school on Thursday, much longer than the usual five minutes.
"Everyone was literally going 2 miles per hour," Natoli said. "The trick was going on the new snow because you don't slip and slide as much."
About 5,544 domestic U.S flights were canceled and another 978 were delayed on Thursday, with Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport the hardest hit, said flight-tracking website FlightAware.com.
About 1,000 people spent the night on cots and mats at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, the airport said.
DECISIONS ON SCHOOLS
The decision to keep New York City schools open drew some criticism from teachers, who said it was unwise to expect children to travel in dangerous conditions.
"Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted," said United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew. "It was a mistake to open schools today."
City schools chancellor Carmen Farina defended the call, telling WABC-TV: "Many of our kids don't get a hot lunch and, in many cases breakfast, unless they go to school ... My decision is where the kids are safest and the most taken care of, and the answer to that is in schools."
Many other communities around the region kept students home.
When Francine Fencel, of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, learned that her four children would be staying home for the sixth snow day this year, she sent them outside to make igloos in the yard but realized the family would be losing some holiday time.
"We had all these long weekends scheduled in March when the kids were supposed to be off school, but those have all been taken back because of snow days," Fencel said. "The schools will start adding days on to the end of the school year."
Philadelphia closed schools for its 135,000 students for the fifth time this school year on Thursday, far more than administrators had planned for, meaning the system will have to find a way to make up four days to meet the 180-day minimum set by law.
Schools spokesman Fernando Gallard said the days would be made up with a mix of a shortened spring break adding days in the current school calendar or at the end of the school year.
Government offices across the region, including federal offices in Washington, Connecticut state facilities and western Massachusetts, were closed.
Winter storm warnings were in effect from North Carolina to Maine, with the National Weather Service urging caution because of "hazardous" road conditions throughout the region. As much as 8 inches (20 cm) was forecast from eastern Pennsylvania to Maine, with accumulations expected to reach a foot (30 cm) in places.
The storm system, which has dumped heavy snow, sleet and freezing rain from eastern Texas to the Carolinas since Tuesday, was blamed for at least 13 deaths in the South and for knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers.
An ice storm warning was in effect for parts of central Georgia on Thursday morning, after about one inch (2.5 cm) of ice had accumulated there and into South Carolina. Schools across the South were closed again on Thursday.
Nearly 230,000 Georgia Power customers were without electricity Thursday morning, with half of the outages reported in the Augusta area. Close to 200,000 Duke Energy Corp customers in North and South Carolina were also without power.
"The catastrophic part is mostly the ice across the South where they're getting anywhere from a half inch to an inch of ice accumulating on power lines and trees," said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland.
Looking to add some comic relief to the dreary weather, a sheriff in north Georgia joked on Facebook that Valentine's Day was canceled because of unsafe driving conditions.
"Men who live in the designated 'NO VALENTINES DAY ZONE' are exempt from having to run out and buy lottery scratchers and Hershey bars from the corner stores until February 18, 2014, due to ice, snow, freezing rain," Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry posted on the department's Facebook page.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan, Barbara Goldberg and Victoria Cavalierein New York, Jim Brumm in Wilmington, North Carolina, David Beasley in Atlanta, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Bill Trott in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; editing by Gunna Dickson)