By: Mira Costello
On a commuter campus, extreme temperatures and snow like we saw in the winter storm Feb. 2 and 3 can pose a real threat to student learning and safety. Even students living on campus might not be thrilled about walking across an icy bridge in subzero temperatures. So, what goes into a winter weather cancellation, anyway?
Chancellor Susan Elrod said decision-makers consider multiple factors in winter weather closures, one of which is temperature and wind chill.
“It might be two degrees, but it might feel like minus 10, so that’s something we take into account,” Elrod said.
Obviously, the amount of snow or precipitation is also a key concern.
“If it’s just a few inches, we can manage that,” Elrod said. “But if it’s like we had recently – 12 to 18 inches of snow – that’s a high level that’s hard for us to clear.” Chancellor Elrod added that snow considerations include not only how well campus sidewalks and roads can be cleared, but how well city streets and surrounding areas will be plowed.
Chief of Staff Elizabeth Paice also noted that the time of day when precipitation is slated to arrive can influence closure decisions.
“If it’s going to be the most challenging or dangerous during commuting times, that can also factor in,” Paice said.
Nikkie Blume, a freshman who commutes to school by car, said winter weather can make travel extremely difficult, especially before the streets have been plowed.
“What’s normally a 35 minute drive for me has turned into an hour and a half before, and I’ve been late to class because of it,” Blume said. “It’s really dangerous and scary, and I know I’m not the only student who feels that way.”
Our weather apps can be inaccurate, though – especially in Northern Indiana, where winters are often unpredictable. So, how do administrators know they’re not going to be caught off guard, or accidentally raise a false alarm?
“We get very detailed weather reports from the local weather bureaus, which are more detailed than you might get on an app on your phone or even the news,” Elrod said. “So, we have access to weather information that gives us more precise prediction information about when the snow is coming, how much is coming, how it will move across the state, et cetera.”
Students might also wonder why they received a text about the Feb. 2 cancellation so late in the evening on Feb. 1. Chancellor Elrod clarified that this was actually an early notification: “Our goal is to make the decision for a particular day by 5 a.m. of that day, or sooner,” Elrod said. “In this last storm, we were able to make the decision the night before.
“Once a decision is made by me, then it goes into the IU Notify system. In this last situation, students might have gotten messages in the evening because that’s when we made the decision; if we had made the decision, let’s say, at 4 a.m. messages would have come shortly after 4 a.m.,” said Elrod.
Although it may seem as though administrators are making a last-minute decision, Chancellor Elrod said, discussions have likely been happening 24 to 48 hours in advance of any foreseen weather conditions.
Although Chancellor Elrod issues the final decision on whether the campus will close and to what degree, she said there are teams of people involved. One, the local emergency management team, includes the IUPD Chief of Police, the Facilities crew, and the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, according to Chancellor Elrod. Other senior leaders, such as the Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic affairs – who is consulted on class cancellations – are also involved.
Chief of Staff Paice also added that the University has an Emergency Management Specialist who is particularly knowledgeable about weather specifics, such as frostbite risk.
“They’re a really strong resource for helping us know when we’re reaching that threshold where we need to have a conversation,” Paice said.
Different types of weather and expected effects can also influence the type of closure that occurs, whether it is a complete campus closure with no classes online or in person (as in the case of Feb. 2), a campus closure with online classes (Feb. 3), or class cancellations with campus open for faculty and staff. For example, Chief of Staff Paice said, widespread power outages may make it unreasonable to require online classes to meet.
While IU South Bend administrators are in frequent contact with safety teams across IU campuses, Chancellor Elrod noted that our campus might make a decision different than any other campus, considering both IU South Bend’s large commuter population and Michiana’s unique weather conditions.
Depending on their commute, some students – like Blume – might feel uncomfortable traveling to school in winter conditions, even when school is open.
“On days when the weather and roads are bad, there’s typically low attendance anyway, so I wish campus would close not only for the safety of the students but for everyone’s education as well,” Elrod said. “There’s been a few times where I felt school should have been canceled but it wasn’t.”
“Some students may be commuting from a long distance, or they don’t have a car that can manage, or they’re just not sure what the road conditions might be,” Elrod said. “Reach out to the faculty member in charge of the class. That’s the most important way for students to express whatever concerns they might have about their ability to attend class,” she said.
Chancellor Elrod and Chief of Staff Paice also reiterated some winter safety tips all students can follow individually.
“I always like to remind students to dress for the weather,” Paice said. “Bundling up and monitoring the weather are important so that you can dress accordingly.”
“I think people also have to make sure they’re wearing their snow boots,” she said, “just using common sense and making sure you’re doing what you need to do to stay safe,” said Elrod.
“We don’t want people putting themselves in situations that are going to be dangerous or risky, so we’re always thinking about that,” Elrod said. “The safety of faculty, staff and students is the top priority all the time.”
Photo // Mira Costello