By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Schools closed in cities across the Midwest and as far south as Tennessee to protect children from bitterly cold weather, as forecasters warned of dangerously low temperatures.
In Chicago, the third-largest U.S. school district with 400,000 students and almost 800 schools, students were told to stay home and indoors as temperatures dropped to between 20 and 30 degrees below average. Overnight lows were expected to be as low as 16 below zero.
Although the morning was sunny and clear in Chicago, commuters said uncovered hands and faces got painful with just a few seconds in the brutal cold. The National Weather Service warned frostbite can happen with just 15 minutes of exposure and advised people to keep pets indoors.
Chicago's trains and buses were less crowded than normal as some workers stayed home. There also were some delays of buses and trains due to the weather.
The National Weather Service issued wind chill alerts for cities including Chicago and Detroit as strong Arctic high pressure built into the Midwest. Temperatures in the Chicago area could dip to 16 degrees below zero overnight on Wednesday to Thursday, with overnight wind chill values between 25 and 35 degrees below zero, the weather service said.
"Dangerously cold wind chills will continue Thursday morning," in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana, the weather service said.
NO FUN IN THE SNOW
A day without school did not mean fun in the snow. Cook County, which includes Chicago and surrounding areas, shut sledding hills and cross-country skiing areas and told people to stay indoors.
Many parents scrambled to line up child care. Kim Dooley, 52, of Chicago was on the elevated train into work after rushing to find a nanny for her 6-year-old special-needs daughter.
"People aren't as hardy as they used to be," she said. "They're coddling kids too much."
In Minneapolis, where the temperature was 8 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, commuters left their parka hoods up inside the trains and pedestrians were walking with their hands over their faces.
But most Midwesterners took the cold in stride and said the temperatures seemed normal compared to last year's polar vortex storms.
"This is nothing. It does not compare to any of the epic storms that we've had," said Matt Minar, 42, an enterprise architect. Ohio saw snowfall overnight but nothing unseasonal.
"This time last year was worse," Steve Carlson, 49, a Cleveland native and customer service worker for AT&T who had calls scheduled for outdoor work all day.
Farther south, outdoor workers in Kentucky doubled up on coats to protect against wind chill temperatures of 4 degrees below zero.
"I drink a lot of hot chocolate," said Eddie Rainbolt, 50, in Louisville, a sign holder for Solid Gold, which buys gold and silver.
Several Southeastern states also braced for frigid cold.
In Atlanta, the medical examiner's office said it was investigating the death of a man found outside a bus stop that may have been weather-related.
(Additional reporting by Karen Pierog and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Letitia Stein in Tampa, Kim Palmer in Cleveland, Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, and Todd Melby in Minneapolis; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)