Snow days: The good, the bad and the impact on academics

Vincent Harkins, assistant vice president of facilities management at American University, sits at his desk on April 9. Harkins is vital to the creation of a recommendation to cancel classes due to snow.
(Photo by Justin Wise)

By Justin Wise

WASHINGTON – Snow days: they can cause happiness, stress and even frustration. 

While universities have the intention to ensure safety for all students and faculty, academics are ultimately impacted. Many different factors are included in the decision-making process, so the question is: How do universities balance all the different aspects to make the best possible decision?

When making this decision, universities must consider different factors regarding the weather, such as the anticipated time that the snow storm will hit and what the duration of the snow will be.

However, they must also consider factors that involve the campus and the people on it, such as if there are campus and athletic events scheduled for that day and if the food service and staff members can actually make it to campus.

Fortunately, technological advancements make the decision easier, because of the accurate weather predictions and the availability of alternative teaching methods.

At American University, the process begins with the facilities management office carefully watching the weather forecasts. The top-level employees are in a conference call with people of the same position at various universities in Washington, such as Howard University and Georgetown University. They discuss the weather information that they have, but they do not always make the same decision, because they are all different in their abilities to handle snow or ice.

“Our campus is always in better shape than the surrounding areas because we have dedicated teams,” said Vincent Harkins, the assistant vice president of facilities management at American.

American’s employees are in fact dedicated. In preparation for an incoming snow storm, the employees occasionally sleep overnight on campus so that they do not have to worry about the commute in the morning. The number of employees changing shifts to stay overnight can get as high as 50, depending on the size of the storm.

When creating the recommendation to cancel classes, American is not different from other universities in different parts across the country.

“If Philadelphia closes, all of the public transportation is shut down,” said Ken Ogawa, the associate vice president for facilities and sustainability at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “We’ve had issues where employees couldn’t get to campus. Public roads were closed. So we’ve had to shut down the university because no one would be there to run it.”

The viewpoint on if a university should close or not depends greatly on the position that people have there. Marcus Lyles, the executive director of public safety and chief of police at Howard University in Washington, is a strong proponent of more cautious decision-making because the weather could always “throw” them a “curve ball.”

“My community, my students, faculty and staff always come first, and if I see safety hazards out there, ice on the ground or snow approaching, my standpoint is a little different than our chief operating officer or provost,” said Lyles. “My purpose is safety and if these individuals can move around campus in a safe manner.”

One incident of a major snow storm was back in 2016, in which “Snowzilla” hit in January, as Harkins describes. The snow closed American for five days.

“It was a burden for everyone involved, but the students were well taken care of,” said Harkins. “We were well stocked with salt for the roads and our equipment was ready and able to keep up with the accumulation.”

At American, members of the teaching faculty can be frustrated by the university closing, due to its disruption to the curriculum.

“Anytime classes are canceled, it tends to be disruptive to the way in which a faculty member wants to have the class unfold,” said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University. “A day here or there, you can make it up. You can tweak your syllabus in a way that allows you to go forward. When you do have a number of snow days all packed into a single semester, people are trying to get through a certain amount of material and it can be fairly disruptive.”

For students, there are mixed views on snow days. Some students are happy when they receive the notification of the snow day because it gives them a free day to either catch up on work or just relax and have fun. On the other hand, some students are upset that they aren’t getting their money’s worth. Torgom Zatikyan, a junior at American, said that classes “should not be canceled” and that “students are paying a lot for them.”

“I came from Russia and we can have minus 20 degrees Celsius and snowfall, and nobody even thinks about canceling classes,” said Zatikyan. “Here, we have a little snow and classes are canceled.”

Fortunately, there are alternative ways for professors to have their material reach the students. Blackboard, the online website that many universities use to provide students with their class materials, has a feature called Blackboard Connect. This feature allows a teacher to hold an online class, with video, audio and other means to provide an as-close-as-possible classroom experience.

“Having this as a backup plan can solve many problems,” said Catalin Stefanescu, a professional lecturer at American University. “It’s not always a snow day. Sometimes life happens. Maybe a professor has to go somewhere for two days. If you know how to do it online, you can do this instead.”

However, while electronic classes seem to be a good alternative to physical classes, they do not provide the same benefits and are not perceived as equals. In addition, when the university closes for snow, many faculty members must take care of their children, who are home from school as well, so they don’t have time for class. In some extreme cases, the snow could knock out electricity, leaving students and faculty powerless.

“I think the online option is really pushed by the university,” said Jocelyn Johnston, a professor of public administration at American University who doesn’t prefer online methods. “And that is fine if it is workable for everyone. And it’s just not going to be.”

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