The University of Waterloo has had two snow days in the last two weeks. TWO! While the university has had completely valid snow days in the past be it resolved that the most recent snow days are setting a poor precedent for ongoing snow days.
As an undergraduate student, I battled my way to campus rain or shine, snow or sleet. There were days when students could literally cross-country ski directly to class and the university was still open. Unfortunately, I was on co-op during the only snow day to take place during my degree but I did get the email from the graduating class of 2013 telling me that while the school was closed, engineering classes were most definitely still open.
I always thought the reason the university stayed open was because the co-op program and the need to have a certain number of teaching hours for engineering accreditation in all 3 terms meant that the university had less wiggle room than others. During the Feb 2nd 2015 non-snow day, provost Ian Orchard explained that they chose to keep the campus open based on the fact that plows were out, city buses were running and plant ops was successful at keeping walkways on campus clear. That assessment proved valid as students made it to campus despite Laurier, Conestoga college and Guelph university all being closed.
Realistically most programs at the University of Waterloo are intensive enough that the majority of student live within walking distance of their classes. We have a low population of students commuting to campus unlike universities like York or the Scarborough campus of U of T where many students live at home. At least a couple of students will make it to class, and if there’s nothing else UW engineering students are good at, it’s sharing notes with our cohort.
The University of Waterloo does not always show its love for its students. The university believes firmly in short term suffering for long term gains. They chose to renovate both libraries at once offering only earplugs as compensation, they cleave the campus in pieces with endless construction, FEDS was repurposed and the Bomb Shelter was suddenly and unceremoniously closed. However, in the case of inclement weather, I believe the university expects us to use our common sense. If a student commutes in from afar they might have to miss a lecture or two but the majority of students will still make it to campus. Maybe the university simply needs to create better guidelines for accommodating students and staff making longer commutes.
Snow days are different for universities compared to High schools and elementary schools. It’s not just that University snow days inspire the mixed feelings and mild panic of re-arranged schedules. The public-school system is in control of fleets of seatbelt lacking buses and is responsible for the wellbeing of thousands of kids who can’t be left home alone. One high school snow day in my youth we were sent home in the middle of the day, BUT, they sent two rounds of buses because they couldn’t send elementary students home before the end of the day in case there was no one home to meet them at the school bus. Whether they call it a snow day or not the University is are only really making a suggestion.
So it is true, snow days are a tricky business. The decision to close the university has to happen early enough to get the news out, depending on the forecast that might entail closing the university even though the weather hasn’t gotten nasty yet. The provost has to account for the length of time students will be on campus once they arrive. As engineering students who often stay on campus into the early hours of the morning, it is easy to miss developing weather, and the university has to keep that in mind.
Let’s take a look at the few snow days that have happened in the past, although to be fair Waterloo has terrible timing with snow days. Starting with these past two days, February 6th and 12th. Environment Canada had issued storm warnings due to the threat of multiple types of severe winter weather including freezing rain and snow conditions. One possible consequence of freezing rain is power outages and downed electrical wires due to ice build up on wires. Several ice storms have completely shut down Toronto.
Now let’s move onto this past April during exams several days were partially cancelled. Since cars were literally blown straight off the road by the winds and some Ontario highways were closed, these snow days were completely warranted. The university simply couldn’t win. There was frustration from some students and staff that the university opted to open at noon on Monday, April 16th, but students were also frustrated about how their exams were being re-scheduled and the implications for travel plans. School closures during exams are more important since skipping exams can make or break passing a course. Safety wise even though the school re-opened at noon the police were still warning against anything but essential travel and Conestoga and Laurier remained closed. Prior to 2018 UW hadn’t closed in April since 2003.
The internet does make school closures difficult to find but to my best knowledge, the most recent weather-related school closure prior to April 2018 was February 8th 2013 during IRS. Inconvenient yes, especially since disappointed 4th year students probably had to be forcibly led off campus.
Winter weather is dangerous, it should be taken seriously but that does not mean that the university should completely close at the slightest threat. If anything, more flexible policies for attendance on bad weather days are in order to avoid disruptions to busy schedules. Between interviews, assignments, projects, classes and midterms students are busy enough without shifting deadlines due to snow days. Studying for midterms or finals only to have them cancelled and rescheduled results in undue stress.
Hopefully, it has now become apparent that as intelligent adults we can make our own decisions about travelling dangerous weather. Closing the university is a tool that should only be used in extreme circumstances. As an institution, it can be easy to become too cautious about safety and to worry too much about liability. However, in a dynamic university where students disperse at the end of the term to every corner of the world on co-op too many snow days really do cost money.