Anthony M. Armstrong, principal of Middle School 74 in Bayside, Queens, was having a miserable morning. He was groggy from a night of worrying about slippery sidewalks, and a tire on his Chevrolet Equinox had nearly gone flat on his way to work.
When he finally made it to school at 7:10 a.m. on Wednesday, there was another surprise: More than half of his 100 teachers did not show up. So Mr. Armstrong scrambled, turned on the Disney movie “Brave” in the auditorium and instructed teachers to use class time to review concepts.
“It’s been exhausting,” Mr. Armstrong said. “We’re coping.”
Across New York City on Wednesday, schools grappled with anemic attendance and complaints that the city had erred by holding class on a day of subzero wind chills and icy streets. By late afternoon, only 47 percent of students had shown up for class, the Education Department said.
Despite the poor showing, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to go forward with classes, which the city announced after 11 p.m. on Tuesday.
“We only close schools when it is absolutely necessary,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference.
But many teachers, principals and parents did not see it the mayor’s way.
“It’s too messy outside for the kids,” said Adella Sanchez, 40, after she bear-hugged her son, Alex Alago, 8, outside Public School 88 in Ridgewood, Queens.
L.A. Santiago, a crossing guard manning the corner of 195th Street and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, said parents had complained constantly throughout the morning.
“They shouldn’t be out here,” he said. “For us adults, it’s not too bad, but for kids, no.”
In a break with tradition, the Archdiocese of New York, which usually follows the city’s lead on snow days, ordered its 98 elementary schools to shutter. Educators felt “the children would not really be getting anything out of the school day if they were to come in,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman.
The delicate politics of snow days have stymied New York City officials for years.
Calling off classes is a sure way to win the hearts of students, but it can draw the wrath of parents suddenly in need of last-minute child care.
Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was criticized in 2004 for canceling classes in anticipation of a storm that turned out to be relatively mild (the high was 30 degrees). In 2009, he came under fire again for declaring a snow day at 5:40 a.m., leaving little time for parents to make child-care arrangements. Since 1982, the city has canceled classes 10 times because of snow; they have also been canceled for hurricanes, including a full week afterHurricane Sandy in 2012.
Mr. de Blasio’s first test came when a storm struck a few days after he was sworn in as mayor. The mayor declared a snow day, citing especially frigid temperatures.