Wednesday, January 07, 2015


“But My Kid’s School is Closed!”

When the local K-12 public schools close, should the local community college close, too?

They share something other than propinquity.  Many students and staff are also parents of school-age children..  When the K-12 schools declare a snow day, some are able to make alternate arrangements for childcare, but many can’t.  For employees, that can mean needing to take personal days; early in the year, that’s usually not a crisis.  For students, though, each individual professor sets her own attendance policy, so the risks of missing class when the college is officially open may vary from one course to another.

Faculty face a difficult question when half of the class is out because of weather.  Do you teach as if nothing were unusual, thereby putting those with school-age children at a disadvantage?  Do you move to a lighter lesson -- maybe a review -- and thereby essentially concede a day?  Do you give extra credit to those who showed up?  

Every year, we get a few stray cases in which the professor couldn’t make it, but wasn’t able to reach the college or the students to let anyone know.  The hardy souls who made it in tend to get understandably cranky when that happens.

The argument for following suit when most of the local K-12 schools close is that beyond a certain point, it’s unlikely that most classes will have critical mass to get much done anyway.  (Notice the phrase “most of” -- if you’re in an area with multiple districts, each making its own decision, then it’s entirely possible to have a hopscotch pattern of open, delayed-open, and closed districts.  The inconsistency makes the question that much more complicated.)  

The argument for staying open when possible is that K-12 students are more fragile than college students are, and enough college students don’t have kids that deferring always to those who do winds up imposing costs on everyone.

Online classes and materials can help reduce the cost of a lost day.  When a class is taught entirely online, of course, a snow day is relevant only if it knocks out power or internet connectivity. (That’s a major reason that our intersession offerings have moved to primarily online delivery.)  Even with traditional classes, if there’s some sort of online supplement, then it’s possible to salvage some educational value from a snow day.

I’ll admit that I’m treating K-12 weather closures as an independent variable, which can be misleading.  We’re subject to the same weather they are.  But we don’t bus our students, and our students are adults; weather that’s too severe for a six-year-old at a bus stop may be navigable for a twenty-year-old with a car.  Yes, some storms are bad enough that’s there’s really no decision to make. The tricky case is when the weather is bad enough to persuade many, but not all, of the local K-12’s to close, but it’s still driveable.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen elegant solutions to these dilemmas?  What should a commuter college do when most of the local K-12’s close?  And if it stays open but many students miss, what should faculty do that day in class?

Even as a supplement, the online back-up plan has its own issues - at my rural, wintery college, many of the students who can't make it to class (or thus, the library) live far enough out of town that they also have woefully unreliable internet.
Having been born and raised in WNY (Rochester) and moved to a place with substantially less snow in my late 30s, I've got to say, the way most places that are used to a lot of snow deal with it is outright idiotic. More than four inches on the roads, no matter how well plowed/salted/sanded, shut everything the f*ck down and be done.
In coastal California, we don't have snow days. But a number of the local schools closed recently when high winds were forecast. One private school didn't and had a cypress tree blow down trapping a student underneath (they had to be rescued by the fire department—nothing worse than some broken bones, I think).

That day I cycled to work as usual, and my students showed up, though I would not have dinged anyone who was unable to make it through the storm due to closed roads.

Whether colleges should close when local schools do depends primarily on what the standards are for the local schools. Some only close for major disasters (and colleges should close then also)—others shut down on any excuse.

I don't know if it's "elegant," but our community college almost always closes when the major local K-12 does. Our service area covers several counties (with a couple dozen school districts) and a lot of our students travel quite a distance to reach us. Adopting the same standard as the local K-12 just makes sense.

As for the second question, I present a shortened version of the material and send 'em home early. I try to build my class so that there's a week of slack time -- we're in the upper Midwest, and it's wise to assume that we'll lose around a week of class in the sadly-misnamed spring term. So if I'm doing 15 weeks of material over a 16 week semester, we can expand and contract like an accordion when the weather makes it tough.
Yes, you should close.

You should also be closed on major holidays like president's day when daycares are closed and your employees and students with children will struggle to make it to class.
Your comment about needing to take a personal day early in the year assumes that is possible. Some campus offices have bans on vacation / personal days around the start of the semester. Even taking a sick day during these crunch months is frowned upon.
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