Campus Infrastructure Shudders Under Record Cold

Campus closures have stopped COVID-19 testing and vaccinations while some colleges struggle through power outages and burst pipes displacing students.

February 17, 2021
 
Courtesy of Centre College
Football players at Centre College in Kentucky shovel ice and snow off the field.

Record-breaking low temperatures and winter storms across the southern and central United States caused widespread power outages and forced dozens of colleges to close for at least several days.

The storms hit shortly after many colleges began what will likely be another challenging spring term. More and more institutions are transitioning to some in-person instruction amid the pandemic and welcomed more students to campus than they did in the fall. In some cases, the recent bad weather shut down campus COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites and threw a wrench in colleges’ efforts to keep students and employees socially distant.

Conditions are bad in Texas, where more than 3.6 million people were still without power as of Tuesday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks power blackouts throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of people in California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia were also without power Tuesday afternoon.

Trinity University in San Antonio closed nonessential buildings to conserve power for residence halls. Internet connectivity throughout the city has been sporadic, and the university canceled classes until Friday. A few outdoor fire sprinklers broke and caused water damage. Facilities crews have also responded to burst pipes in several buildings. Some students were moved out of City Vista, an on-campus apartment building, and into a nearby hotel after the building sustained water damage.

“The conditions on our campus have been a series of whack-a-mole efforts,” said Tess Coody-Anders, vice president for strategic communications and marketing at Trinity. “A crisis will pop up here and you deal with it, and another pops up somewhere else.”

The university rallied to respond to the emergency, Coody-Anders said. Several dining hall employees offered to sleep in the dining hall overnight in order to serve food to students the next day.

Avery Hollis, a sophomore at Collin College, a community college in McKinney, Tex., has struggled through sporadic power outages over the past couple of days. She lives about 30 minutes away from campus in Frisco and takes classes online.

“Our kitchen water pipe was frozen, but we managed to thaw it. The past two days we were getting power on and off every other hour,” she said. “Today we have had power since 11 a.m. We’ve had access to the internet since then.”

Collin canceled virtual classes and remote work through Friday due to power outages. Unreliable internet access has made connecting with professors difficult, and Hollis was worried about keeping up with her coursework.

“I got alerts from the college that all virtual learning had been canceled, but nothing had changed on my schedule so I was a bit anxious about it,” Hollis said. “However, today, a majority of my teachers got in touch with their classes and have told us that all assignments are being postponed until the college opens for all again, when this cold front passes.”

A Texas State University freshman who wished to remain anonymous said she had to evacuate Lantana Hall, a dorm on the San Marcos campus, on Monday morning after a frozen pipe burst due to the cold. She’s currently staying in Sterry Hall.

“It is very cold because power has been going on and off all around campus,” she said. “There’s nowhere to get food except for one dining hall that’s doing its best to provide for us given the conditions.”

Texas State will remain closed until at least Saturday morning. Virtual classes are also canceled until then. Weather and power outages have impacted several university systems, including phone lines and computer networks, according to Jayme Blaschke, a spokesperson for the university. Blaschke confirmed that a frozen pipe caused water leaks and heating issues at Lantana Hall.

Some colleges, including Baylor University, have opened campus buildings as emergency warming centers for students who lost power.

“As we have done since Friday, we focused on our campus schedule by shifting to remote instruction and telework. We tried to do the same shift on Monday, but our city experienced large-scale power outages, particularly in a ZIP code with a high density of off-campus student housing,” said Lori Fogleman, a spokesperson for the university. “Right now we are just approaching campus operations on a day-to-day basis.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees public postsecondary education in the state, also closed Tuesday.

“Due to power outages, the agency is officially closed to enable staff to focus on family in this emergency situation. Each Texas higher education institution would be working with local officials to best manage situations in local areas,” spokesperson Kelly Carper Polden said in an email.

COVID-19 testing centers closed at St. Edward’s University, the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University. The vaccination site at the University of Texas at Austin is also closed through at least Thursday.

The weather responses put stress on COVID-19 prevention efforts at many colleges. A message from Rice University to students highlighted the tension caused by the need to mitigate COVID-19 spread and to keep warm.

“During the winter storm emergency, the crisis management team urges the campus community to stay indoors as much as possible. Sidewalks and streets may be covered with ice, creating a hazard for anyone walking around the campus,” the warning said. “Spending more time indoors may increase the possibility of COVID transmission in enclosed spaces both on and off-campus, so please remember to mask, physically distance, and wash your hands often.”

Winter storms have also impacted colleges in Kentucky. By the end of this week, Centre College in Danville, Ky., will have endured three winter storms since late last week, said Michael Strysick, chief communications officer at Centre. The college moved all classes online Thursday afternoon and has allowed some in-person instruction over the past several days as the weather allows.

“Dealing with a global pandemic has been a huge challenge, and then just when you think it can’t get any worse, there’s these storms,” Strysick said. “They say misery loves company.”

As of Tuesday evening, the campus has not lost power, but many of its surrounding areas have been struggling with on-and-off blackouts, Strysick said. Most of Centre’s nearly 1,500 students live on campus, but others who have lost Wi-Fi may not be able to access their coursework. Lab classes in particular have been disrupted, because it’s difficult to bring in-person labs online.

Ice and sleet made the roads near Danville dangerous. The college provided housing on campus or nearby for faculty members who live out of town.

Strysick said that many of the COVID-19 prevention measures Centre had relied on in the fall are no longer options during the winter.

“In the fall, we had lots of tents set up outside. Classes were often taught in tents. Students were able to hang out outside a little bit more,” he said. Now, the college has set up warm building spaces where students can spread out and has measured each space on campus to comply with social distancing protocols.

The 202-year-old private liberal arts college is located near a Civil War battlefield. Legend has it that the college has never fully closed, even during the Civil War.

“You know how myths and legends are -- sometimes you don’t let truth get in the way of a good story,” Strysick said. “But whenever we have bad weather, people say, ‘Oh, we didn’t shut down for the Civil War. We can’t let a little snow or ice bother us.’”

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