The US East Coast is facing its biggest snowstorm in years, with at least 50 million people likely to be affected.

Traffic affected by bad weather in Pottsville, Pennsylvania on December 16, 2020.
Traffic affected by bad weather in Pottsville, Pennsylvania on December 16, 2020. (AP)

A winter storm has marched up the US East Coast, delivering a disruptive blow to transportation systems and a welcome day off for some school kids, but not for many who have been learning remotely during the pandemic.

By midafternoon, the Winter Storm Gail, dubber the Nor'easter, had brought a wintry mix to Washington and wind-whipped snow to New York City, parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as it threatened a swath of the country that is home to more than 50 million people.

The sprawling system could dump up to 60cm of snow in an area stretching from eastern Pennsylvania to New York's Catskill Mountains, with lesser amounts of 30cm or more in the rest of the Northeast, forecasters said.

Parts of Virginia and North Carolina will be blanketed with a thin later of ice, while areas in the Mid-Atlantic region closer to the coast will get only rain before the storm moves out to sea from Boston late on Thursday, they said.

Officials throughout the area urged motorists to stay off the roads and residents to stay home.

New Jersey Transit drove home that point by suspending bus and rail service in the northern part of the state after Wednesday's evening rush hour.

With the first flakes landing in the New York area by mid-afternoon, the region's three busy airports reported that 20 percent to 30 percent of flights had already been canceled and more were expected as accumulations mounted.

Widespread power outages were also possible because of strong winds, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities said.

A day off, not for sure

Normally, major winter storms in the forecast meant children could count on a getting a day off of school, an especially welcome relief for those facing exams.

But pandemic-induced remote learning has made the "snow day" less of a sure thing.

“I’m sad, not only for me but for the kids that will grow up without ever experiencing snow days,” said Saorla Rafferty, a freshman at High Tech High School in Secaucus, New Jersey, where administrators said snow would not halt online learning.

"In the old days even if there was a speck of snow the schools would shut," added Naiya Gardner, a fourth-grader in Bethesda, Maryland, where the school district told students to expect "virtual learning" to go on as scheduled.

But a school system in Jefferson County, West Virginia, within commuting distance of Washington, took a different approach, declaring proudly in a note widely shared on social media that it is shutting down on Wednesday in honour of snow.

"For just a moment, we can all let go of the worry of making up for the many things we missed by making sure this is one thing our kids won't lose this year," schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said in a note to the community.

"So please, enjoy a day of sledding and hot chocolate and cozy fires," Gibson said.

A woman plays with snow in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 16, 2020.
A woman plays with snow in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, December 16, 2020. (Reuters)

'This year is different'

New York City schools, which just recently reopened their classrooms after a brief pandemic-induced shutdown, were set to go fully remote on Thursday when students are likely to wake up to more than a foot of snow on the ground, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

"I know we all grew up with the excitement of snow days, but this year is different," de Blasio said on Twitter.

The city said it would suspend its coronavirus testing program for nearly a day starting on Wednesday afternoon, but de Blasio said testing and the city's nascent Covid-19 vaccination program would remain on schedule.

Meteorologist Bob Oravec of the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said the forecast could have been worse if not for the brisk speed at which the system was travelling.

With winds expected to gust up to 50 miles per hour, the storm snow could significantly reduce visibility and down trees and power lines, the weather service said.

"Typically, when you have a big snowstorm like this, you can have snow totals one to two inches plus per hour,” Oravec said by phone.

Source: Reuters