Students question snow day policies: USM answers

A student, leaving a USM bus, shuffled through the snow in Gorham last Wednesday, in front of Bailey Hall.
Patrick Higgins
A student, leaving a USM bus, shuffled through the snow in Gorham last Wednesday, in front of Bailey Hall.

Posted on January 21, 2013 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

Poor weather conditions Wednesday played a part in a University of Southern Maine shuttle bus fender bender and led to long commutes, and now, many students are questioning why classes were not canceled, delayed or let out early during the snowstorm.

USM Chair of the Student Senate Chris Camire quickly realized that student frustration was on the rise Wednesday. The shuttle bus trips between the Gorham and Portland campuses that normally take between 20 and 25 minutes reportedly lasted for more than an hour that day, and one bus was even involved in an accident in Gorham that afternoon when a car slid through a stop sign and ran into the front of the bus. There was little damage and no injuries were reported, but it had students shaken up.

The senate quickly set up a poll on its Facebook page asking students “should school have been canceled today?” – and overwhelmingly, students who visited the page, voted “yes.” The final tally was 113 to 2. Among the comments left on the poll, frustrated students described having accidents when driving to school and experiencing long commutes.

Camire explained that he intends to compile the responses to the poll and send them to President Theo Kalikow with the hope that she will issue a statement to students to help them better understand the process behind the decision to hold classes that day.

“We can go to work and continue with our lives despite whatever inclement there may be. However, we’re part of an academic institution, and there are more parts of the whole that need to be considered,” he said. “We’re talking about over 10,000 people who are ultimately affected, and now we have students that are dealing with their insurance companies because they had a crash.”

USM Chief Financial Officer Dick Campbell is the man who — with the approval of USM President Kalikow — decides whether classes should be canceled in case of inclement weather. He’s had the job for 15 years between USM and the University of Maine at Augusta, and he admits that he doesn’t love having to make that call.

“Making this decision is my least favorite part of the job,” he said.

He explained that the job requires that he call many external sources. Facilities reports to him, and he consults with school districts, neighboring colleges and universities and the state police for road conditions. He also consults with a meteorologist. However, he stated that the timing of Wednesday’s storm made it difficult to accurately assess its severity.

“It was less than ideal weather — that is, that the storm, in terms of its timing, couldn’t have been much worse.” Since the storm started early Wednesday morning and continued throughout the day, there was no opportunity to get good information, he said.

“We have to look at what seems appropriate for the general population that we serve,” he said. Varying weather conditions between Portland and Gorham also make the decision difficult because classes can’t be canceled at one campus and not the other.

In  the end, Campbell advised that in these situations drivers should make the decision to go to class based upon how comfortable they are making their drive in poor conditions. “The roads were slick,” he said. “It’s winter in Maine, and you have difficult driving conditions at times.”

“Ultimately, students, faculty and staff must make individual decisions based on their perception of the driving conditions and the specific roads they will travel,” he said. He concluded that he hoped professors would not penalize students for absences during storms when students have notified professors before class.

John Titus, 42, a USM shuttle bus driver was working on Wednesday during the storm.

“It was dangerous,” he said. “But I don’t know what criteria or procedures exist for making that decision. I know that we could tell them that there were a lot of accidents.” He described seeing four accidents on his way between campuses.

For Campbell, Wednesday’s decision was the right one. He admitted that making the decision was difficult, but retrospectively, he feels that USM and the many other universities and schools that did not decide to close acted appropriately and correctly.