(courtesy of UMass Lowell)
Last semester snow storms extended Thanksgiving break by two days and forced some students to make up their finals. If this weekend’s storm and subsequent parking ban are any indications, there are likely more snow days on the horizon, but how does the university decide when to close school?
“It is really not a whim,” said Kerry Donohoe, dean of academic services, and one of the many voices that helps decide when it is best to cancel or delay classes due to inclement weather. “I would say that any time it is clear that we should have a snow day, we have a snow day.”
When a storm is approaching, the university’s emergency response team gets updates from the national weather service, consults with state and local agencies and talks to faculty experts.
The team considers factors such as the severity of the storm, the time of the storm, whether faculties could reasonably clear all parking lots and walkways, if city streets are clear and if buses can safely travel from one campus to another. The most important factor is the overall safety of the faculty, staff and students, said Donohoe.
“It is a very complex prosses,” Donohoe said. “But what we always do is say, ‘can we reasonably be open in a way that is safe for our faculty, staff and students?’.” The team consults representatives from all over campus, including emergency services, residence life, faculties, Aramark, Academic Affairs and the metrology department to ensure all viewpoints are considered.
“We don’t always get it right, but I think that safety has been the guiding value in all of it,” Donohoe said. “The challenge is also balancing the expectation that if the forecast is not clear, then we cannot always make the decision the day before.”
Weather is challenging, said Donohoe. Different models can predict completely different forecasts. Donohoe said that for the storm in Nov. UMass Lowell’s expert had said they could either get 12 inches of snow that Tuesday or none. The emergency management team is continuously on campus monitoring the situation and reviewing the most recent weather updates.
“We like to make decisions as early as we can,” Donohoe said. “However, when the information is not clear, what that means is that between four and four-thirty in the morning, we have a phone call to asses for the day whether we can be open.”
These early morning meetings allow the team to review the most recent weather reports to make the best decisions for the UMass Lowell community and gives the team three hours to communicate any decisions to the faculty, staff and students.
“We air on the side of safety. So, if a storm is coming in the middle of the day, that is when we have kind of earlier closures. We would rather let people get on their way home before it starts,” said Donohoe on the topic of midday storms.
Donohoe said she felt that there are very few times when the team should have canceled classes, but they did not. She thought there were more times when they choose to close but could have held classes. She credited faculties for the work they do to keep the university’s walkways and parking lots clear.
“With a campus community that is so broad, we also recognize that everybody has got to make personal decisions every day,” Donohoe said, pointing to how some students commute to campus from places where the weather may be different. Donohoe said that faculty are very reasonable if the students communicate with them.