Snow at McMicken College

Campus held an empty presence Feb. 16 through Feb. 19, 2015, due to cancelled classes from the snow and cold weather.

While snow days are welcomed days off for many students, the decision to call them isn’t always an easy one for University of Cincinnati officials. Deciding whether or not to keep the university open when dangerous weather conditions arrive — including accumulating snow and below-zero conditions — is a balancing act, and safety is at the forefront.

Feb. 16 through 19, the university was closed because of inclement weather. That Friday, classes were delayed until 10 a.m. And according to forecasts for Wednesday, more winter weather is on the way.

Tomorrow’s decision, and all snow-day decisions, ultimately come from university President Santa Ono’s office, according to Bob Bauer, assistant director of UC’s Grounds, Moving and Transportation Department.

“They get input from Administration and Finance, Grounds and Transportation and Public Safety, but ultimately it comes from the president’s office,” Bauer said.

Bauer said Ono takes into consideration road conditions and extreme temperatures, but consults the Grounds and Transportation Department about how long they think it will take them to make campus safe.

“That can determine the difference between a closure and a delay,” Bauer said.

With snowy conditions, around 50 grounds maintenance workers arrive between 3:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. each morning. A delay may be called if those workers cannot make campus accessible by the time classes begin. If the conditions on campus are estimated to stay hazardous into the afternoon, a school closure is likely, Bauer said.

In preparation for snow, Bauer checks local radars and, if ice and sleet are a possibility, his teams will salt the roads and walkways around campus. If there is already snow on the ground, he has to consider the snow that will melt during the day and freeze overnight.

“This year, we have used about 340 tons of salt — and this is a light year,” Bauer said.

But the department tries to avoid over-salting. Doing so can kill the grass near the edge of the sidewalks and workers would have to dig up that soil, replace it and plant new grass there in the spring, Bauer said.

The grounds maintenance crews use jeeps and pick-up trucks with plows attached, as well as a four-wheel drive vehicle with a plow and salt spreader called a Gator, to clear the snow wherever possible.  

But Bauer said that a good amount of what his crews do is shoveling by hand.

“There are about 14 people involved with vehicles and everybody else is out hand-shoveling building entrances and walkways that are too narrow for a plow,” Bauer said.

Bauer said he and his crews are considered essential personnel at UC, meaning that they have to show up for work no matter what the conditions are like.

“This is the worst time of year for us,” Bauer said. “The workers are spending more time with their crew members than their family lately.”

According to UC’s winter weather closure policies and procedures, other essential personnel include staff at the College of Medicine, utility and facility maintenance workers, public safety and other services that are needed around the clock.

UC Assistant Police Chief Jeff Corcoran advises Ono on public safety issues during weather emergencies.

“I will recommend a late opening if it appears the road conditions will improve sufficiently to justify a late opening instead of a closure,” Corcoran said. “It is a balancing act between the disruption to the University’s operation and the ability of students and employees to get there safely.”

Corcoran explained that there is no official deadline for when a closing or delay can be called, but ideally it would be before any students or staff get on the road.

“Cincinnati is often on the edge of weather fronts, so forecasting conditions is as much an art as a science,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran bases his judgment calls on forecast data from the National Weather Service, forecasts from a contracted private weather service and reports from the highway maintenance crews and police.

Sarah Thaxton, a first-year communication services and disorders student at UC, said she thought most of the snow days this year were justified, but that they did set back her classes.

“A couple of my midterms and tests were pushed back,” Thaxton said. “Some are now after spring break, which means now I have an exam to worry about over break.”

Hannah Martin, a first-year fine arts student at the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, did not have a problem keeping up with her class work.

“A lot of my professors gave us work ahead of schedule in case something like this happens,” Martin said.

Martin said she feels the snow days were justified because of the amount of snow the city received and how icy roads were, as well as the campus itself.

“Snow was up to my knees,” Martin said. “Granted, I am only 5 feet tall.”

Bauer and Corcoran both said public safety is the predominant concern when debating whether to call off school.

As for the students, both Thaxton and Martin said that they got a good deal of work done ahead of schedule — including catching up on Netflix.