Montgomery County's Snow Day Predictor

When wintry weather is expected, students and parents turn to MoCo Snow’s ratings for answers




Photo by Skip Brown

Alex Tsironis used to get up early when snow was in the forecast so he could watch the list of local school closures scrolling on the TV news, hoping to see Montgomery County Public Schools as the Maryland districts rolled by. “As a kid, I remember looking at the ticker all the time, and it would always go to a commercial right before the ‘M’ for Montgomery County,” says Tsironis, who grew up in Gaithersburg.  

Now Tsironis, 34 and married, has his own band of devoted followers—thousands of students and parents who look to the MCPS teacher for his online predictions about whether schools will close because of snow. Tsironis, a physical education teacher at the Blair Ewing Center in Rockville, is the founder of MoCo Snow, a website that uses a “pencil” rating system to provide predictions about school closures and delays.  

More than 1,000 readers subscribe to the website, which Tsironis calls a “hub of winter weather information,” and more than 12,000 people follow MoCo Snow on Twitter. “I can’t wait till winter just so I can wake up to you giving great news like 2 hour delays and no school,” a follower tweeted in October. Last winter, the website racked up over 1 million page views, according to Tsironis. During the blizzard last January, the site averaged more than 40,000 views each day and crashed a couple of times due to the high volume, he says. A normal winter day, with no snow forecasted, draws between 10,000 and 15,000 page views. Tsironis posts throughout the year, though website traffic is lighter during other seasons.

Tsironis began predicting weather-related school closures at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, where he taught PE for seven years before moving about three years ago to the Blair Ewing Center, an alternative education program for middle school and high school students. When snow was predicted, he’d determine the probability that schools would close based on local weather forecasts. Then he’d post his prediction in his classroom and cover it up so the students couldn’t see it until he was ready. “I would unveil it,” Tsironis says. “Sometimes there’d be cheers, sometimes I’d get booed, but I loved it.”

As his students moved on to high school, they still wanted to know his predictions, so he created a blog. Later, a former co-worker offered to build the website, which quickly attracted a student following after it launched in 2011. As MoCo Snow’s popularity grew, parents and even teachers began checking out Tsironis’ predictions. MCPS teachers and staff are among his followers. Last March, former MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr tweeted, “As an MCPS parent trying to organize my day tomorrow I find myself eagerly awaiting predictions from the invaluable @MCPSsnow.”

For the first couple of years, few people other than Tsironis’ students knew that he was the prognosticator behind the website. “Teachers at my school started talking about it, and at first they didn’t know it was me. They were telling me, ‘Oh, did you see what the guy wrote?’ And I was like, ‘No, what did he write?’ ” Tsironis says. “I would tell the kids, ‘Don’t tell them it’s me.’ ”

When winter weather is coming, Tsironis posts a brief summary of local forecasts and a prediction using his rating system, which involves images of sharpened yellow pencil stubs. One pencil means that schools most likely will open on time. The maximum of five pencils means “it’s almost certainly safe to stay up late, because there will probably be no school tomorrow,” according to the website.

MoCo Snow warns followers that Tsironis’ predictions aren’t official and that the site has no connection to MCPS. “You should still complete all homework assignments, study for any tests/quizzes, and prepare to wake up for school on time unless the county states differently,” the website reads.

Tsironis subscribes to several weather model websites and checks out the forecasts of local meteorologists before making his predictions. He admits his lack of professional expertise can lead to his own incorrect assumptions about the weather. “I think I do have more knowledge than the average person, but there’s times when I’ll come up with something and I think it makes perfect sense, and [meteorologist] Howard Bernstein from WUSA9 will tweet me and be like, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen because of this and this and this,’ ” he says.

Still, Tsironis believes he has an advantage over weather forecasters when it comes to predicting whether schools will close. “I’m usually always right, and they’re not—and I think that’s because it’s not their job to predict the school closing situation,” he says. “I’ve got experience from 30 years of dealing with how Montgomery County works when it comes to that.”

When he’s wrong occasionally, students aren’t shy about pointing that out on Twitter. When he’s right, Tsironis is just as happy as his students. “I love the snow days that turn out to be great days that you can go to the mall or go out to eat,” he says. “Those are the best snow days because they shouldn’t have been snow days.”

 

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