So Close, yet So Far
A Peek Behind the Curtains on Harvard Snow Days
By TUSHAR DWIVEDI
As temperatures continue to drop and snow accumulates rapidly in massive mounds outside Widener and Annenberg, students can’t help but reminisce about “the good ol’ days of Spring 2016, when the snow days were honestly endless.” This Winter season took its time in arriving however, with temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s not uncommon in November and December. After enjoying a lengthy (and oftentimes warm) winter break, however, students were greeted back in Boston and Cambridge with painfully strong winds and layers of snow on the ground.
This past Monday, however, brought an unprecedented level of snow and cold to Boston, with announcements proclaiming that the Boston Public Library, City Hall, Franklin Park Zoo, and the JFK Library were all closed. Meanwhile the 12-16 inches of snow also caused the state government to delay office opening until 11am, whereas the local Boston city office was closed for all non-emergency workers. Finally, the train systems were running significantly behind schedule, as reported by the MBTA.
As such, many students wondered as they went to bed Sunday night if “we’d get to enjoy a long weekend.” The resulting email from the Harvard Administrative Office, however, disappointed many, and left students “quite frankly, stunned.” When asked what they would most likely have done with a full day off classes, the list of responses was quite limited: sleep and study for midterms dominated, with a few students mentioning going into Boston or “just enjoying the snow.” In response to the questions, having been through their own heyday of snow-days back almost two years ago, many Juniors and Senior couldn’t help but wonder how exactly Harvard decides whether to cancel classes.
The Independent reached out to Leslie Kirwan, Dean for Administration and Finance at Harvard FAS, hoping to gain insight into the decision-making process. Dear Kirwan explains that the process is a challenging one, filled with significant nuance. While the administration takes into account information and announcements from the National Weather Service, local and state governments, MBTA, and nearby colleges and universities, a clear-cut decision to cancel school for a day really only occurs if the “Governor declares a travel ban, and/or the T announces a disruption or shutdown in service (as opposed to weather-related delays).” As such, even heavy snow days such as Monday require significant discussion and debate, given the lack of clear guidance from state officials.
As Kirwan explains, “At intervals, the University’s CMT (Crisis Management Team) is mobilized for phone calls to discuss this across Harvard. We strive to make a decision for the University that is most appropriate and communicate it quickly, while allowing individual schools and offices within Harvard to give different guidance if needed. The Executive Vice President communicates the guidance to all of Harvard, and the individual schools and units follow up with local guidance.” Thus, while students are questioning and waiting whether the awaited snow-day school cancellation email will be sent out, each of the various departments and divisions across Harvard are in contact to make the proper decision. Making the decision even more complex is the presence of scheduled midterms, providing an additional logistical challenge.
Dean Kirwin emphasizes, however, that the administrations “trusts that students, staff, academic personnel, and faculty will use their best judgment about whether it is safe to come to work.” While many professors did cancel class on Monday, students were left in a slightly more challenging position. The Independent surveyed several students as to whether they felt comfortable telling a professor they would not be able to make it to class because of the weather, and the overwhelming response was that “it seemed as if the expectation was for us to attend.” Transparency in the process of understanding how decisions are made is just the first step for students in wait of a snow day; the next, and likely more important, is understanding if they have administrative support in making decisions best for them, or whether the decision remains a class-by-class and professor-by-professor decision.
Tushar Dwivedi ’21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) awaits another snow day opportunity in the upcoming future.