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When does weather warrant canceling in-person classes at Ohio State?

Safety is always the top priority

Though spring semester is underway, spring has not yet come to Ohio. Winter weather can strike at any time. The Ohio State University’s team of public safety and facilities professionals keep a close eye on the weather and maintain procedures to clear roads and walkways of snow and ice.

Ohio State’s Columbus campus has cancelled classes just 19 times since 1978, as the threshold for a class cancellation on a college campus is far higher than that of K-12. When considering whether to cancel in-person classes due to severe weather, information is gathered, and a recommendation is brought forward by the executive vice president and provost. Ohio State’s Emergency Management and Fire Prevention director, Robert Armstrong, works with units throughout the university to assess road conditions, scheduled events, weather impacts, and more.

“There are so many different groups that come together, as well as some of our off-campus partners,” he said during a recent episode of the City of Ohio State podcast. “We all come together, we discuss what the available information is, what is the intel that we have, and then we present a joint recommendation that is carried forward by the provost. Ultimately, the provost and president are going to make that decision based on the information that we have.”

A variety of factors are involved in the decision to cancel in-person classes, Armstrong said.

“The decision is never black and white,” he said. “So many factors go into it: the storm timing, whether it’s 9 p.m. or 5 a.m., when the snow is coming in. If it comes in at 9 p.m., we may have time to clean it all up. If it’s 5 a.m., that’s right when people are starting to get to campus, and it makes it a little more difficult.”

Though in-person classes may be canceled in the event of severe winter weather, instructors can have continuity plans in place to ensure learning can continue. This can include a shift to a virtual class meeting or other alternative teaching methods. Unless announced otherwise, online or distance-learning classes would continue to occur as scheduled.

No matter the weather, safety is always the top priority, Armstrong said. Ohio State officials also evaluate off-campus road conditions and maintain communication with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, which issues snow emergencies, Armstrong said. Listen to the full podcast episode to hear more about the decision-making process.

While severe weather has caused the cancellation of classes at Ohio State’s Columbus campus less than 20 times in the past 50 years, the university’s regional campuses in Lima, Mansfield, Marion, Newark and Wooster have different criteria for closures, Armstrong said.

He also says that winter weather on regional campuses can pose unique issues, given the number of students, faculty and staff who commute by driving on side roads in more rural areas of the state.

“They have a different set of challenges that they have to overcome when you’re talking heavy snow,” he said, “and it takes a lot longer for those folks to clean off the roads and make it safe to get to campus than it does in a larger city.”

When a snowstorm hits central Ohio, 30 full-time Ohio State staff on the Columbus campus work around the clock to clear 40 miles of roadway and 140 miles of sidewalk, said Jeff Barr, Facilities Operations and Development’s assistant director of Landscape Services.

“Usually, it will take somewhere between six and eight hours to clear the sidewalks and roadways one time,” he said. “We do prioritize some areas over other areas. First and foremost is the Wexner Medical Center, with the patients, visitors, faculty and staff that come in and out of the hospitals. That is a very high priority for us.”

The next priority is clearing roadways and areas near residence halls and dining facilities, Barr said.  Disability access is also a priority.

“The challenges that they have are quite enormous when it comes to snow and ice,” he said. “Imagine someone in a powered wheelchair that doesn’t have sidewalks cleared for them and their tires are just spinning because it’s slick. We really focus on folks who have physical challenges so that they can get to and from class like anybody else.”

Listen to the full podcast episode. The university’s Department of Public Safety offers a real-time weather forecast online.

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