College snow closure policy examined

On Feb. 1, Vice President for Operations Steve Klass sent out a campus-wide e-mail explaining to students, faculty and staff that the College would close all non-essential services Wednesday due to inclement weather. It was clear from the e-mail that certain departments and services – such as specific administrative offices, Lee Snack Bar, ’82 Grill and the Children’s Center – would be unavailable to the community throughout the day, and Dean of the College Sarah Bolton’s Wednesday e-mail clearly explained the Health Center’s early closure. However, the decision-making process and procedures behind the closures remain unclear to many in the College community.

College policy

The nature of the College presents a unique problem in handling emergency closures, particularly those due to extreme weather conditions. “As a residential campus, we can’t completely ‘close’ for the kind of severe weather event we’ve experienced twice in the past month,” Klass said. “We have a large number of students in residence at this time of year, and it’s our primary obligation to ensure that these students have food, heat, electricity and, to the greatest extent possible, the ability to move about campus under reasonably safe conditions.”

This duty to the students is counterbalanced by the need to keep the staff safe as well, according to Klass. “We owe a duty of care for our staff and faculty in terms of reducing their exposure to dangerous travel conditions to the degree possible while still maintaining a baseline of essential support operations and quality of life,” he said.

According to Klass, College policy dictates that all “essential departments” remain open, while non-essential departments are closed, allowing individuals who work in those departments to remain home or leave early to ensure their safety. “The primary departments with large numbers of staff considered essential in an emergency are Facilities, Dining Services, Campus Safety and Security and OIT.”

Regardless of the decision to close specific departments, classes continue at the discretion of the faculty, according to Klass. “Any decision in which I’d be involved regarding what closes and what stays open would not include a decision on classes,” he said. “That is the domain of the faculty. Individual faculty [members] make the decision as to whether or not their classes will meet.”

Communicating closures

The procedure for closing or delaying the opening of campus begins early in the morning on any day when weather could potentially become problematic. A few key members of the administration will, via an early-morning phone call, discuss the options available to the campus if the predicted weather patterns seem severe. Klass cited delaying the opening of the College, a full-day dismissal of non-essential staff or an early dismissal of those staff members as the options available, but he stated, “Our starting position is that we don’t close campus.”

Once a decision is made as to what extent daily operations will be modified, an extensive chain of communication is set in motion to ensure that everyone is aware of the day’s procedures. “I work with our communications office to pull together an e-mail that gets sent to students, faculty and staff,” Klass explained. Meanwhile, Human Resources records a message on the College’s weather hotline, 413-597-ICEY, which is intended specifically to explain which departments are closed and which are open. This hotline is also used to inform staff that the College will remain open on days when there may be a question.

In the case of the recent closure, however, these decisions were all made and communicated on the afternoon of Feb. 1, the day before the closure was to take place. “It was obvious that a storm was going to hit us and that it was going to be intense,” Klass said in explaining why the handling of Wednesday’s closures was atypical. “We were hearing from a lot of students that they were stranded all over the place due to canceled flights … and it was already pretty bad that day and evening.”

Aside from the severity of the storm, the fact that Wednesday marked the first day of the term was also a factor in the decision. “Because Wednesday was the first day of classes, we agreed that it would be important to make the decision in advance and to give out as much information as possible about what would be open, what would be closed and how faculty and students should communicate with each other about classes the next day,” Klass said.

Impact on Dining Services

In the case of an emergency closure, Dining Services is directly notified by Klass in order to give the department sufficient time to re-plan its day. According to Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, this plan was executed smoothly last week. “We have a system where … Klass will notify me, and I’ll notify my assistant directors [Chris Abayasinghe and Jeanette Kopczynski] and then also our executive chef [Mark Thompson],” Volpi explained. “Each one of them has a certain task.” Through a series of well-planned phone calls, Dining Services administrators notify dining hall managers and supervisors, who then contact the staff to make them aware of the situation, according to Volpi.

Furthermore, Dining Services also works to notify its staff and the College at large via its website. “We do an immediate release on the website,” Volpi said. “We update that immediately in the morning, and we do our best to try and communicate with everyone during the day.”

Volpi noted that concern for the staff’s safety is paramount during these types of situations. “When we think of the snow day and making sure our staff is safe, we start to close units to consolidate and basically utilize the staff that’s closest,” he said. “In the last two storms, we’ve closed the ‘82 Grill and Lee Snack Bar. We also closed the Faculty House and catering operations, so then we use that staff to help us with Driscoll, Mission Park and Whitmans’. We also have closed earlier in the evening with late equivalency just to make sure the staff can get home safe.”

Staff members are not penalized for taking the day off if they are unable to get to campus. Dining Services actually encourages its staff to stay home if conditions are treacherous and makes sure to offer options to staff who have difficulty getting home at the end of the day: “We offer our staff a place to stay at the Williams Inn, so we have a bank of rooms that are available to them, and all support staff – all staff – is compensated a day and a half of time for working,” Volpi said. “Those individuals [who have difficulty getting to work] just stay home, and there’s no issue at all.”

In the case of the recent storms and closings, Volpi expressed satisfaction with the success of the College’s decision and notification process. He also noted that none of the dining halls that remained open experienced any level of difficulty in dealing with shifts in traffic due to closures. “I think [traffic in the remaining dining halls] was up maybe 20 percent at the highest,” he said. “I know Driscoll said they were high one evening, and Whitmans’ had a heavier than normal breakfast.” Some of the dining halls did serve more individuals than normal, which was due at least in part to Dining Services’ offer of free breakfast and dinner to both the Facilities and Security staff members.

Health Center’s unprecedented closing

While considered an essential department, the Health Center was forced to close at 3 p.m. on Wednesday due to the weather. According to Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison, it was concern for employees who live outside Williamstown, as far away as Pittsfield and even Pownal, which led to the closing. “We’re essential, so we try to get [someone] in here no matter what,” Harrison said. “As the day proceeded … it looked like it was going to get icy, and it was just dangerous.”

Though the decision to close early did come directly from the Health Center and not from the College administration, Harrison worked closely with Bolton during the process. “We let the campus know well ahead of time with the e-mail [from Bolton] that went out and gave directions as to what students should do if it was an emergency, and then we just stopped,” she explained. “We would be back at 8:30 [a.m.] the next morning, [and] the goal was to get people home safe before dark.” Harrison stated that before last week the Health Center had never closed early in her 13 years at the College.

Difficulties and confusion

A number of difficulties can arise due to the College’s policy of avoiding a full closure at any costs, especially in the case of weather closures. Keeping walkways and paths clear is a priority during storms in order to facilitate normal daily activities, particularly in terms of giving students and faculty alike access to academic buildings. “[It] can be a challenge when the snow falls at rates in excess of an inch an hour over a prolonged period of time,” Klass said. “It’s also much easier to keep sidewalks, parking lots and building entrances clean when there are fewer people on campus during a major storm.”

Furthermore, while College policies generally account for all of the basic needs of the students and the faculty, the closure of two departments considered non-essential – the Children’s Center and Office Services – caused difficulties last week. The Children’s Center provides an important service for faculty with young children, while Office Services is in charge of the distribution of course packets at the beginning of the semester, making it key at this time in the calendar. A lack of clear communication from the start led to student confusion and frustration when course packets could not be picked up Wednesday afternoon.

“We thought that we had been clear when we said that Office Services would be closed on Wednesday that everyone would understand that that meant course packets would not be available for pickup that day,” Klass said. Students, however, were unaware that Office Services was the department in charge of course packets. Klass remedied the situation with another campus-wide e-mail that afternoon.

“The degree to which we believe we can provide those [non-essential] services without making it difficult or potentially risky to bring those staff to campus, as well as the degree to which we can guarantee that those staff can even make it to campus, are also the result of subjective judgment calls,” Klass explained.

“We take [the] decision [to close campus] very seriously because it impacts general productivity and because we want to be able to provide uninterrupted services in support of the academic mission of the College on a consistent basis,” he said.

Despite Wednesday’s complications, Klass was quick to praise the staff of essential departments: “The turnout of Dining, Security and Facilities staff, for example, during these storms is incredibly high, and the conditions under which they travel and work to take care of all of us deserves our admiration and gratitude.”

baseline of essential support operations and quality of life,” he said.
According to Klass, College policy dictates that all “essential departments” remain open, while non-essential departments are closed, allowing individuals who work in those departments to remain home or leave early to ensure their safety. “The primary departments with large numbers of staff considered essential in an emergency are Facilities, Dining Services, Campus Safety and Security and OIT,” he said.

Regardless of the decision to close specific departments, classes continue at the discretion of the faculty, according to Klass. “Any decision in which I’d be involved regarding what closes and what stays open would not include a decision on classes,” he said. “That is the domain of the faculty. Individual faculty [members] make the decision as to whether or not their classes will meet.”

Communicating closures

The procedure for closing or delaying the opening of campus begins early in the morning on any day when weather could potentially become problematic. A few key members of the administration will, via an early-morning phone call, discuss the options available to the campus if the predicted weather patterns seem severe. Klass cited delaying the opening of the College, a full-day dismissal of non-essential staff or an early dismissal of those staff members as the options available, but he stated, “Our starting position is that we don’t close campus.”

Once a decision is made as to what extent daily operations will be modified, an extensive chain of communication is set in motion to ensure that everyone is aware of the day’s procedures. “I work with our communications office to pull together an e-mail that gets sent to students, faculty and staff,” Klass explained. Meanwhile, Human Resources records a message on the College’s weather hotline, 413-597-ICEY, which is intended specifically to explain which departments are closed and which are open. This hotline is also used to inform staff that the College will remain open on days when there may be a question.

In the case of the recent closure, however, these decisions were all made and communicated on the afternoon of Feb. 1, the day before the closure was to take place. “It was obvious that a storm was going to hit us and that it was going to be intense,” Klass said in explaining why the handling of Wednesday’s closures was atypical. “We were hearing from a lot of students that they were stranded all over the place due to canceled flights … and it was already pretty bad that day and evening.”
Aside from the severity of the storm, the fact that Wednesday marked the first day of the term was also a factor in the decision. “Because Wednesday was the first day of classes, we agreed that it would be important to make the decision in advance and to give out as much information as possible about what would be open, what would be closed and how faculty and students should communicate with each other about classes the next day,” Klass said.

Impact on Dining Services

In the case of an emergency closure, Dining Services is directly notified by Klass in order to give the department sufficient time to re-plan its day. According to Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, this plan was executed smoothly last week. “We have a system where … Klass will notify me, and I’ll notify my assistant directors [Chris Abayasinghe and Jeanette Kopczynski] and then also our executive chef [Mark Thompson],” Volpi explained. “Each one of them has a certain task.” Through a series of well-planned phone calls, Dining Services administrators notify dining hall managers and supervisors, who then contact the staff to make them aware of the situation, according to Volpi.

Furthermore, Dining Services also works to notify its staff and the College at large via its website. “We do an immediate release on the website,” Volpi said. “We update that immediately in the morning, and we do our best to try and communicate with everyone during the day.”

Volpi noted that concern for the staff’s safety is paramount during these types of situations. “When we think of the snow day and making sure our staff is safe, we start to close units to consolidate and basically utilize the staff that’s closest,” he said. “In the last two storms, we’ve closed the ’82 Grill and Lee Snack Bar. We also closed the Faculty House and catering operations, so then we use that staff to help us with Driscoll, Mission Park and Whitmans’. We also have closed earlier in the evening with late equivalency just to make sure the staff can get home safe.”

Staff members are not penalized for taking the day off if they are unable to get to campus. Dining Services actually encourages its staff to stay home if conditions are treacherous and makes sure to offer options to staff who have difficulty getting home at the end of the day. “We offer our staff a place to stay at the Williams Inn, so we have a bank of rooms that are available to them, and all support staff – all staff – is compensated a day and a half of time for working,” Volpi said. “Those individuals [who have difficulty getting to work] just stay home, and there’s no issue at all.”

In the case of the recent storms and closings, Volpi expressed satisfaction with the success of the College’s decision and notification process. He also noted that none of the dining halls that remained open experienced any level of difficulty in dealing with shifts in traffic due to closures. “I think [traffic in the remaining dining halls] was up maybe 20 percent at the highest,” he said. “I know Driscoll said they were high one evening, and Whitmans’ had a heavier than normal breakfast.” Some of the dining halls did serve more individuals than normal, which was due at least in part to Dining Services’ offer of free breakfast and dinner to both the Facilities and Security staff members.

Health Center’s unprecedented closing

While considered an essential department, the Health Center was forced to close at 3 p.m. on Wednesday due to the weather. According to Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison, it was concern for employees who live outside Williamstown, as far away as Pittsfield and even Pownal, Vt. which led to the closing. “We’re essential, so we try to get [someone] in here no matter what,” Harrison said. “As the day proceeded … it looked like it was going to get icy, and it was just dangerous.”

Though the decision to close early did come directly from the Health Center and not from the College administration, Harrison worked closely with Bolton during the process. “We let the campus know well ahead of time with the e-mail [from Bolton] that went out and gave directions as to what students should do if it was an emergency, and then we just stopped,” she explained. “We would be back at 8:30 [a.m.] the next morning, [and] the goal was to get people home safe before dark.” Harrison stated that before last week the Health Center had never closed early in her 13 years at the College.

Difficulties and confusion

A number of difficulties can arise due to the College’s policy of avoiding a full closure at any costs, especially in the case of weather closures. Keeping walkways and paths clear is a priority during storms in order to facilitate normal daily activities, particularly in terms of giving students and faculty alike access to academic buildings. “[It] can be a challenge when the snow falls at rates in excess of an inch an hour over a prolonged period of time,” Klass said. “It’s also much easier to keep sidewalks, parking lots and building entrances clean when there are fewer people on campus during a major storm.”

Furthermore, while College policies generally account for all of the basic needs of the students and the faculty, the closure of two departments considered non-essential – the Children’s Center and Office Services – caused difficulties last week. The Children’s Center is critical for faculty with young children, while Office Services is in charge of the distribution of course packets at the beginning of the semester, making it key at this time in the calendar. A lack of clear communication from the start led to student confusion and frustration when course packets could not be picked up Wednesday afternoon.
“We thought that we had been clear when we said that Office Services would be closed on Wednesday that everyone would understand that that meant course packets would not be available for pickup that day,” Klass said. Students, however, were unaware that Office Services was the department in charge of course packets. Klass remedied the situation with another campus-wide e-mail that afternoon.
“The degree to which we believe we can provide those [non-essential] services without making it difficult or potentially risky to bring those staff to campus, as well as the degree to which we can guarantee that those staff can even make it to campus, are also the result of subjective judgment calls,” Klass said.

“We take [the] decision [to close campus] very seriously because it impacts general productivity and because we want to be able to provide uninterrupted services in support of the academic mission of the College on a consistent basis,” he said.

Despite Wednesday’s complications, Klass was quick to praise the staff of essential departments: “The turnout of Dining, Security and Facilities staff, for example, during these storms is incredibly high, and the conditions under which they travel and work to take care of all of us deserves our admiration and gratitude.”

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