My kids love the snow. They can’t wait to have another snow storm after which they will spend hours snowboarding and just return home for periodic snacks and meals. My feelings are not quite as positive. I love the beauty of newly fallen snow; I hate driving in it, walking in it, and I equally hate the after snow clean up of my walkway and driveway. The more snow, often the greater the beauty and inevitably the greater the hatred.
On a University level, snow is very clearly a no win situation. From the first flake, the phones begin ringing and the emails flying regarding whether and when we will close. Even if the snow is still days away, the questions are already here. And when the snow begins, the problems actually multiply. Should we stay open and should classes be held? Should we close and if so, what facilities should remain open? And there is never a right answer. Thursday, a week ago, we looked carefully at the snow forecast and given most of the predictions, concluded that evening classes would be fine. At the beginning of the evening classes and even well into the evening, that prediction made sense and so did our decision to remain open. But for the last of the evening classes, they began and ended in fairly heavy snow complicated by slick roads and limited visibility. Was it the right decision to stay open? I think so because given when the decision was made, with no snow on the road and a forecast that focused on overnight accumulation, there could be no other logical decision. But with any snow decision, there is always second guessing and anything but unanimity regarding whether the correct decision has been made.
A few weeks earlier after another major snow storm, we closed one day and reopened at 12:30 PM the next day. We wanted to make sure that all major roads were clear and that travel to the University was as safe as it could be. But for many individuals, it appeared that classes starting in the middle of the day served as a deterrent to coming to class (and for some students starting at the regular time after such a storm would also have been a deterrent). Attendance suffered. And remember, once you get into a situation where many students are missing from class, there is a loss. First of all there is a loss of student class participation. Second, given that the number of students missing is significant, the dilemma a faculty member encounters is whether to repeat the class or just continue moving forward. My decision was always based on the difficulty of the material presented. If there was a significant number of students absent and the material was in my opinion critical, I repeated the class. This puts pressure on the remaining classes to complete everything that the course should cover. Once again, a no win situation.
There is another impact that comes from a snow storm. If classes are canceled, we sometimes have to make up the in-class time lost. We work within a parameter that most classes require 750 minutes for each credit earned. Clearly this time in class varies with certain classes, such as independent study, internships, department honors projects, graduate courses etc., but are always guided by this parameter. In constructing the calendar, we try to build in extra time in every class so that, even with a snow day or two, we still meet this parameter. But this year we have begun to run out of this extra time and consequently will have to extend a number of our classes into one of our snow/study days. Ideally, these are two extra days between classes and exams, when students can concentrate on the last minute studying that often precedes final exams. This year, the number of such study days will be cut, even if we have no further snow related cancelation.
And the final snow related problem comes down to money. In a mild winter, the money we set aside for snow (almost $300,000) can be used for other purposes. Nothing is lost and something extra is gained. More databases for the library or a classroom renovation or another worthwhile use. This year, the money will be used for snow and possibly we will use more than what was originally allocated, which means less for something else. Clearly a no choice situation but I’m certainly not happy about how the money is being used.
Overall, for all of us in education, there is no business like snow business.