It’s Winter, and us Canadians like to think of ourselves as “hardy”, especially when it comes to cold and snow. As a university student, you are unlikely to be driving to campus every day, so you need to consider how much walking you need to do, either directly to campus, or to and from public transport. In any case, it’s no big deal. You quickly get used to it and develop habits and rules of thumb that help you deal. A good winter coat, a pair of decent gloves, and some head protection, and you’re all set.

That said, every now and then, we get a storm (usually a snow storm, but on some rare occasions, an ice storm), that results in conditions becoming significantly more difficult and treacherous.1

The more severe these events are, the more dangerous it is to be outside trying to get somewhere. Which is why different institutions (I’ll focus on academic ones for the purpose of this post) will sometimes shut down for the day after a snow storm.2

This week, an “arctic blast”, or a “Polar Vortex” hit North America and for a couple of days temperatures plummeted.3 For us in the Waterloo, Ontario region, this meant that instead of the -5 to -10 temperatures we’re used to dealing with (and that is a bit on the colder end), temperatures hovered around -35 to -40 with windchill during the day. This is significant. This means that frostbite can set in within five minutes. To put this in perspective, it is not unusual to take more than ten minutes just to get to a bus stop, before you begin waiting for the bus that is in all likelihood, given the atrocious conditions, going to be very late.

As such, students attending the University of Waterloo were hoping that the university would announce a “snow day” today, and help them, and staff, not feel pressured or obligated to go to campus.4 And as usual, the university decided to keep campus open.

The university’s twitter account received plenty of flak - that I will not bother to link to - from annoyed students, and I am told the reaction on Facebook was a lot uglier (to the surprise of… *counts raised hands* zero people).

I thought the decision was unreasonable given apocalyptic news reporting, closure of schools (and the cancelation of school buses and even taxis in neighbouring cities), and the knowledge of how fast you can lose your face at -40 degrees, so I asked about what guidelines are used to make this decision, and got a fast response. 5

The guidelines page is what I expected it to be: an empty and vacuous document so lacking in any kind of criterion or description of systematic assessment that to call it a document of “guidelines” is unacceptable. You can read it for yourself if you like, but in short, it says that the Provost makes the call, maybe after consulting with some other people. Maybe not.

How does the Provost decide? What criteria are used to assess “significant danger”? Is the Provost thoughtful enough to consider that students, you know, walk for a while before they get to wait for a bus that’s late? No one knows.

After some backlash, the Feds president met with the Provost and reached a compromise in which “Uni will remain open but undergrads cannot be penalized for not attending today.” As students who responded to the announcement pointed out, you’re still missing whatever content is covered in that day’s lectures. Some lectures are a bit okay to miss, while other meetings like labs and tutorials are a lot more important and difficult to recover from missing.

What I, and many others, maintain, is that given what we know about the city’s, and the students’ average level of preparation and ability to cope, today was unsafe enough to tell people it’s better if they stayed at home. But another serious issue I have with all of this is that this empty and useless document is the best the university administration has done after years of this kind of anxiety, uncertainty, and complaint every potential snow day.6

It doesn’t matter whether you think this was a right call or not. The point is that the decision is made by one person whose process and criteria are completely hidden from us. Social media administrators promise to “compile social media sentiment” and forward it to someone, and in the meantime there is complete absence of any two-way direct or sincere communication between students and the decision-makers. As a result, the administration will continue to enjoy making decisions in a vacuum chamber, shielded from the large number of frustrated students tweeting their asses off, or spending two hours writing and proofreading a blog post trying to make a point only a few will read.

  1. What they have come to call a “snow event”, a label that always makes me feel like I am in a Tom Clancy novel.

  2. Someone from Chicago or the North Pole could say that there are always colder places, thus concluding that any future complaining is silly. It all depends on the habits and rules of thumb you have developed and learned over time to deal with the average.

  3. The Day After Tomorrow II: Polar Vortex. Dun dun DUUUUN!!

  4. Pressured because only a “snow day” means that all lectures, exams, etc, are put on hold. Historical note: This happens every Winter. It snows a lot, students wish for a snow day (most of them likely because of laziness and wanting a day off). The University decides to keep campus open, and the students are outraged. In about 80% of cases, this is a reasonable decision. In this situation, it was not.

  5. Whoever is handling the UW twitter account was doing a phenomenal job of responding to, what seems from a quick glance, almost every single response and complaint they received.

  6. Not to mention that this announcement only appears on the university’s homepage and Twitter/Facebook, and is carried by some radio stations, but there is no service to send you an email or an alert text message to tell you that campus is closed. That’s right, the radio carries the announcement, but you don’t get an email. What year is this? (in case you think I am being unreasonable, just last night I met someone who was expecting an email, and they are not someone who uses Twitter or follows the university on Facebook, and I don’t need to tell you that they don’t listen to the radio).