Winter at VC: inclement weather always on the radar

Vassar has seen its share of inclement weather in recent years. As in the case of Hurricane Irene 2010 and Sandy in 2011, a severe storm can disrupt classes, cancel events and confine students indoors. Photo:
Vassar has seen its share of inclement weather in recent years. As in the case of Hurricane Irene 2010 and Sandy in 2011, a severe storm can disrupt classes, cancel events and confine students indoors. Photo:
Vassar has seen its share of inclement weather in recent years. As in the case of Hurricane Irene 2010 and Sandy in 2011, a severe storm can disrupt classes, cancel events and confine students indoors. Photo:

After a few false starts it has become clear—winter is finally coming. As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, so too do budding dreams of weather related class cancellations and the snow days of high school.

But colleges, and particularly Vassar, do not usually let weather get in the way of classes all that easily.  Especially in the Northeast, it takes a certain type of bad weather to cause a College-wide shutdown, though professors are generally free to make their own decisions regarding class cancellations.

According to Associate Vice President for Human Resources Ruth Spencer, any sort of delay or shutdown for the College involves working with a variety of administrators and other employees to come to the best decision for a particular weather situation.

“The Grounds manager monitors the weather and consults with the Vice President for Finance and administration to determine whether their will be a delay in opening or closing of the school,” wrote Spencer in an emailed statement.

Since not all procedures involve a wholesale shutdown of the school, Spencer went on to explain the benefits of delays, which work to make the campus more accessible for students and employees alike.

She said, “A delay allows for the grounds crew to address parking lots, walkways, roadways, if necessary…before the general population of employees arrive.“

An unavoidable part of winter in Northeast is the potential for an abundance of snow, ice and hail, as well as subfreezing temperatures and biting wind chills.

But ice and snow aren’t the only weather events that can shutdown the school and make dreams of delayed—or cancelled—classes come true. Wrote Spencer, “Since I have been here there usually are a few delays in openings during the winter. We haven’t closed for a whole day more than a couple of times in a single year. There have been wind/rain storms that required delays.”

In fact, normal winter weather is usually not the cause for any large-scale cancellations. Two weather events that had significant impact on the College community in recent memory were the Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, both of which caused at least partial shutdown of the Vassar campus, in addition to carving wide swathes of wind and water damage throughout the entire Northeast.

Hurricane Irene had an impact on a smaller number of on-campus students than Hurricane Sandy did, since it occurred during Freshman Orientation and fewer students were on campus, while Sandy happened later in the year when the entire student body was on campus.

Both of these storms spurred administration and some House Teams into action to keep students safe and comfortable while they weathered out the storms.

According to Jewett House President Tewa Kpulan ’15, Jewett House had a procedure in place during Sandy, providing food and entertainment for the House. Kpulan was on Jewett House Team at that point as well, working as a Student Fellow.

She said, “We got everyone within Jewett to come downstairs with a card that had their name, ID number and phone number. We advised that everyone stay indoors until further notice. Food was brought to us and we told everyone that board games were available if anyone got bored.”

While Hurricane Sandy certainly had a bigger impact in terms of sheer number of on-campus students affected, Irene was the storm that continues to have an effect on the College to this day. Since it was specifically freshmen and House Teams that were stuck inside during this storm, it inspired a type of freshman orientation event that House Teams have implemented these past two years—House Love Lockdown.

Being forced to stay inside the dorms during Irene, when everyone in the Class of 2015 was still new to the College and had not yet formed solid friend groups, according to Kpulan, helped bond some people to their Houses and fellow groups.

“It was a good experience for me, because I got closer with my fellow group and the other members on our floor,” said Kpulan.

However, she does not believe that the House Love Lockdown is necessarily right for everyone.

She went on to say, “I think that it’s a great idea metaphorically, however no one should be forced to be in their dorm for five hours if they don’t want to. I, speaking as a regular Vassar Student and not as Jewett’s President, think that it should be up to the House Teams if they want to do a [House Love Lockdown] or not.”

Not every storm results in as intense preparations as a hurricane, but there are procedures in place for almost any potential severe weather situation—and it does need to be taken on a case by case basis according to Spencer.

“Each situation has to be assessed on an individual basis and directed accordingly.  Any decision is made by the President  Senior Officers of the College in consultation with Safety and Security, Human Resources, Communications, local law enforcement and emergency authorities, [Building and Grounds], Dining, [the] Health Clinic and any other key departments in the College,” wrote Spencer.

While there are many possibilities of shutdown inducing weather, ultimately, the primary goal of severe weather procedures are to keep students comfortable and safe during the inevitable quirks of atmosphere that result in hurricanes, wind storms and the infamous nor’easter snow storms that are always a wintry possibility in Upstate New York.

Said Spencer, “The College does review our crisis management system annually and there are crises exercises that are conducted periodically.  Keeping students safe and comfortable is the College’s number one priority in emergency situations.”

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