Residential colleges and the politics of snow days

Snowy backyard view

My view as I’m writing this post. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the snow is still coming down heavily.

As is wont to happen occasionally at this time of year, we are currently in the midst of a pretty significant snowstorm. As I’m writing this, my city’s blanketed under 9+ inches of snow, while the city where I work, a half hour south of where I live, has over a foot of snow. All of which has fallen since about 7am.

Smartly, last night the city where I work called a snow day. Forecasts were calling for a foot of snow, and kids are bussed in from the outlying rural areas, so calling school off was a no-brainer. The city where I live had a scheduled no-school day today anyway, but called a snow day last night (calling off the no-school day programs and all after-school and evening activities) because of the weather forecast. Better to be safe than put kids and parents and staff in peril.

road conditions map

Road conditions right before I left campus this afternoon to head home. Light purple = bad news. Plus, by the time I hit the road, there were more purple “!” diamonds indicating accidents and spin-outs.

My institution is a residential campus. The president of the college lives,
literally, next door to my building. Conventional wisdom is that faculty and staff live within walking distance to campus. The majority of students live on campus, and those that don’t live nearby.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Oh sure, I received an email this morning around 7am indicating that “it’s up to faculty members as to whether they want to cancel class”. And letting me know that hey, there’s a way I can conduct class remotely! But, uh, I probably should have tested it out first, and oh yeah, we don’t have enough licenses to support the number of students in my class.

But the culture is that we’re here for our students, always and no matter what. And 10 weeks is an awfully short time anyway, so can we really afford to cancel class? Oh, and faculty really shouldn’t miss too many classes during the term. Well, I’m headed home for a funeral later this week, I’ll be at a conference for almost a week in February, and I’m missing another class day in March due to travel, so that’s 4 class days already I’m missing.

Snow on car

This is what greeted me when I left my office. This much snow fell in just over 4 hours.

So yeah, I drove down to campus this morning, and drove back pretty much right after my class this afternoon. Against my better judgment.

It took me about 45 minutes to drive to school this morning and just under an hour and a half to get home. It usually takes me 25 minutes door to door.

This afternoon, it was White Knuckle Driving the entire way. Zero visibility. Heavy falling snow. Roads that clearly had been plowed at some point, but where the snow drifted back over the road. At times, I wasn’t even sure I was on the road anymore. There was what looked like a really big accident on an interstate off-ramp near my house. A tow truck in the ditch somewhere else. And once I reached my neighborhood, streets that haven’t yet been plowed at all.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Whiteout conditions

Where’s the road?

While faculty received some, um, “guidance” on alternatives to holding class, it’s not clear what, if any, guidance staff were given. How many, and which, staff members were told it was ok to not come in? I imagine that the “don’t cancel class” culture that exists for faculty has a counterpart for staff, so I can imagine that the unstated pressure to come in exists on the staff side too. And I imagine that some staff, perhaps hourly staff, may not have had a choice. Or, if a choice exists, it entails burning a sick day or a vacation day, or not getting paid at all. And if you need, or want, to keep those for other reasons, or rely on that paycheck because your financial situation is precarious, maybe that choice is not a choice at all.

And let’s talk about child care. Many school districts were closed today. Are we supposed to bring our kids to campus in this storm? Isn’t that unsafe? And again, what about staff that can’t bring kids in to work (as I heard today) and don’t have an alternative? I have a spouse that could stay home, but I doubt my situation is the norm. Aren’t we putting faculty and staff, again, in a precarious position?

Feet in deep snow.

Glad I chose not to wear my usual teaching outfit of a dress and tights today, so that I could wade through the 12+ inches of snow surrounding my car.

Oh, and the conventional wisdom that faculty and staff live within walking distance of campus? Plenty of faculty and staff do not. We choose not to for many reasons. And even faculty and staff who technically do live within walking distance may choose not to walk in, or perhaps can’t because of physical limitations or other reasons. The city where I work closed down this afternoon. They halted mail delivery and all non-essential operations. Road and sidewalk conditions were plenty precarious in town. My guest speakers for today’s class had difficulties going 2 blocks from their previous meeting to the building where my class is held. So proximity to campus, for our students, staff, and faculty, also in this case does not provide any additional safety.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Today’s decision by my institution to remain open during a significant storm was foolish and dangerous. It reflects a view of college personnel’s life circumstances (local, child care at the ready, a degree of financial security) that is outdated and out of touch. And providing choices that for many are false choices, is not really a choice at all. I would love to see us rethink such decisions in the future, and be a bit wiser about faculty, staff, and student safety.

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