Readers Respond on Snow Days | Inside Higher Ed

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Monday’s post about snow days generated quite a bit of reader feedback.

Some shared my sense that there was something magical about snow days as a kid, especially in the pre-internet era. Abruptly free time felt like a gift. On the snow days when Mom was also off from work and had the chance to bake, it was even better. Cookies taste better on snow days; that’s just science.

As an adult, things are a bit more complicated. Among the issues readers raised were:

  • Dorms. Reducing on-campus services for students in dorms seems unnecessary, but expecting students who commute to brave weather that students in dorms could just walk through raises issues of fairness. My college doesn’t have dorms, so it doesn’t face this issue, but many do. In four years at Williams, I don’t recall classes ever being canceled for weather, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of snow. But when you have a population that’s mixed between dorms (or very nearby housing) and commuters, fairness issues loom large.
  • Staff. Some employees have to show up no matter what, such as campus police and maintenance. In colleges with dorms, food service isn’t really optional. Others are more ambiguous: If classes are canceled, should the library be closed, too?
  • Personal days. From an employee perspective, this may seem petty, but from a management perspective it’s a real issue. Bob put in for a personal day for Monday, then the college had a snow day Monday. Is Bob still charged for the time? Bob will argue that he wouldn’t have had to show up anyway. The college will argue that planned time off is different from a snow day, and that Bob shouldn’t be rewarded for a lucky bit of timing. At a previous college, I once saw this conflict get nasty. (The person’s name wasn’t Bob.)
  • Overtime. Some contracts have clauses mandating overtime pay for employees who have to come in when the college is closed. Snow days can trigger that. The budgetary hit is large enough to notice.
  • Course materials. This is where I see Zoom and similar technology making the most difference. Having some sort of online backup for emergencies can reduce the impact of a lost day.
  • Inaccurate forecasts. I’ve seen this one personally. Sometimes the news warns us that the end is nigh and it’s time to repent, only to find that the storm moves east or west and almost nothing happens locally. This is especially likely in service areas with multiple microclimates, where part of the service area may be hit hard and other parts not at all. To catch people before they leave the house, snow days need to be called before the sun comes up; often, that requires guessing what will happen later in the day. Sometimes the best guesses are wrong.

The other variant of the inaccurate forecast is the storm that wasn’t supposed to amount to much but that grows fangs around noon. Usually rumors start to fly before the closure announcement, with some folks jumping the gun for various reasons. Worse, when the announcement finally does come, it usually leads to awful traffic jams. (The last time we had one of those, I just stayed in my office for an hour to wait out the jam. By the time I left, I don’t think it actually cost me more than a few minutes.)

Finally, as I mentioned Monday, there’s the issue of the local K-12 schools. Even if only, say, a third of them cancel for the day, you’re likely to have many faculty, staff and students unable to show up. Or if they do show up, it’s at the cost of undue hardship. At a certain point, there’s a critical mass of closures that nearly forces the issue.

Zoom can help with some of the issues, but it doesn’t help with most. And as long as weather forecasting remains an imperfect science, we’ll have the occasional embarrassing miss.

Thanks to my wise and worldly readers for adding perspectives. After reading them all, though, I remain solidly pro-cookie.

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