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Staff editorial: University should clarify weather policy

As you are more than likely aware, it was very cold in St. Louis yesterday. In fact, it was very cold all over the Midwest, as a massive polar vortex descended on the region. Accounting for windchill, temperatures on campus reached -15 degrees Wednesday.

Understandably, many students worried about their safety in such frigid conditions, and an online petition asking Washington University to cancel classes collected over 3,400 signatures in around 24 hours. Considering peer institutions like the University of Chicago canceled classes, this was not that unreasonable of a request.

But there was no official university response to the petition or the cold in general, and class went on as normal. Now, the University has every right not to cancel classes: It is an incredibly large and complex operation, and it is nearly impossible for the whole thing to come to a halt at a moment’s notice. Canceling classes has ramifications for not only relatively small things like course schedules, but larger things like the operation of the medical school and hospital. Considering that conditions in St. Louis were not quite as bad as they were in Chicago, it made sense for Washington University to keep running while its peers in the Windy City shut down. The simple fact that Washington University did not cancel classes is not a problem. That was a logical decision.

The problem is that Washington University did not cancel classes and did not communicate with the student body about the issue. At no point did students hear from administrators about whether the conditions would affect the operations of the University, even as high schools across the region announced closures.

Past that, it is unclear who would even decide to cancel classes, or what that process would be. Nowhere online is there a clear, concise explanation of when the University considers canceling classes. We urge the University to publicize its weather cancellation policies and procedures on its website so that students can be better prepared next time there is an extreme weather event.

More importantly, the support for the petition demonstrates that a considerable number of students were genuinely concerned for their safety. Placed in a situation where they felt at risk on their commute to class, but at risk of professors dropping their grades for missing class if they stayed home, students were understandably concerned. It goes without saying that students should never have to choose between their health and their grades, and the University needs to step in in some way to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future.

Again, this does not mean that the University has to cancel classes to make sure students are safe. It is within the administration’s power, for example, to encourage professors to be lenient with attendance when extreme weather is forecasted. Simply allowing students to be able to make a decision to benefit their health without the threat of a docked grade would make significant weather events a much less stressful experience for everyone involved. The University could also suggest that professors include such weather circumstances as excused “sick days” in their syllabi to get around this issue. The point is, there are ways that Washington University can make sure that when conditions get rough, students can choose to keep themselves safe without sacrificing academics.

At some point in the future, there will once again be weather that will make it difficult for students to get to classes. It is imperative that the University has policies in place to make sure that the confusion from this cold spell does not happen again.

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