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Snow Days

February 21, 2009

You’re a college student, and this message from administration arrives in your e-mail inbox: Classes have been canceled due to inclement weather.  

Sweet! Pass along the news to your roommate. Text your girlfriend. Send an instant message to your 20 best friends. And what's the best plan that comes to mind?

Of course, a tackle football game in the snow. No pads. At Cornell University, where a blizzard forced the campus to shut down on Wednesday, members of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity arranged an impromptu game of seniors vs. underclassmen snow-ball. The seniors won, as reported by fraternity member David Cronheim.

The game was held at the bottom of a slope, where others congregated after skiing or sledding (read: gliding down a hill on a cafeteria tray) while using a makeshift ski jump.

Who said snow days are only for the very young?

This week, to the delight of many students, dozens of campuses in the Northeast that can go years without snow closures shut down for hours -- and in some cases, days -- after a series of snow and windstorms caused logistical nightmares.

Ithaca, N.Y., received roughly 17 inches of snow between Tuesday and Thursday morning, forcing the surrounding county to temporarily shut major roads. Ithaca College also closed on Wednesday. 

"Because we are a residential college, everyone has a parking spot and students all want to get out at the same time," said Roger Casterline, director of ground transportation at Ithaca. "I've got facilities staff working long shifts; everyone is starting to fade on me after a few days."

The University of Vermont canceled classes and asked students to stay indoors because crews were not able to clear parking lots, walkways and roadways.

Hartwick College, in New York, shut down Thursday after a water main broke.  

“This is my fourth winter and I think this is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve actually made an administrative decision to cancel classes,” said Richard Miller, Hartwick's president, who explained that the institution usually leaves it to faculty members to determine if they wish to hold individual classes.

Some of the worst weather came to State University of New York at Oswego, which saw 72 inches of snow in one week. The campus closed for three days but has reopened.

Scott Steiger, an assistant professor of meteorology who is starting his own weather consulting business, was easily the most sought after person on campus. He spent much of the week answering e-mails and phone calls from faculty members and administrators who wanted to understand the lake effect. And that's when he wasn't on CNN or National Public Radio or giving interviews to the local media, helping journalists put the storm in perspective.

“The amount of media coverage has been remarkable,” said Tim Nekritz, a university spokesman.

Steiger also used the blizzard as a case study in a class he teaches called, appropriately enough, "weather disasters."

Steiger, who received his undergraduate degree in meteorology from Oswego in 1999, said this was a once-in-five-years type of storm. He said it made sense for the campus to close down because of the poor visibility.

“Snow is piling up, people can’t get parking – there’s a breaking point,” he said. “But if we closed down campus whenever there was snow, we would never have school.”

At the College of Wooster, in Ohio, students were hoping that their part in a university tradition would lead to a campus closure. Legend has it that classes at Wooster are canceled if the 15-foot arch of Kauke Hall, Wooster's primary academic building, is filled with snow -- whether students fill it or it builds up naturally.

So throngs of students, including sophomore Kayla Miller, grabbed their buckets and shovels and arrived to the main building around 10 p.m. Tuesday, ready to take part in the festive tradition.

According to John Finn, a university spokesman, when students began to block other exits of the building with snow, campus security called the Wooster Police Department.

Miller said arguments arose over whether the crowd was taking part in a university-sanctioned event, and that officers threatened the students.

What happened next is somewhat unclear, but three students were arrested, the university's dean of students cleared up the confusion with police and told students to stay clear of the other exits, feelings were hurt, harsh words were exchanged and everyone eventually dispersed.

Wooster canceled classes Wednesday because of bad weather -- not because of the prank. But students might tell a different story.

While many students have enjoyed the time off, stranded presidents have not. Nancy Cantor, chancellor at Syracuse University, was snowed in during the American Council on Education annual meeting in Washington and had to alter her travel plans.

Classes at Syracuse were canceled Wednesday for only the third time in 50 years, university officials believe.

Sometimes, the best way to handle the weather is to laugh at the obsurdity of the situation.

When a SUNY-Oswego spokeswoman -- a 23-year employee, no less -- called a local radio station to announce class cancellations, she couldn't convince the station employee that it wasn't a prank caller with a timely last name.

 

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