The University reopened for the winter term on Jan. 8 and remained open that week in the middle of extremely frigid temperatures brought on by the “Polar Vortex” storm. Though there is an emergency closure policy in place in the University’s Standard Practice Guide, the current policy isn’t specific enough and doesn’t include a comprehensive action plan. According to Provost Martha Pollack, the University didn’t have the “appropriate mechanisms” to close campus during the week of the storm. The existing policy needs to be reevaluated in order to ensure the University is prepared for emergencies with the safety of students and employees in mind.

The current University Standard Practice Guide is vague regarding closure protocol. According to the policy, in circumstances which include severe weather, “some or all services may be discontinued or reduced.” Likewise, a closure “may include the cessation of non-essential services.” However, the University hasn’t definitively distinguished between essential and non-essential staff.

The well-being of students should seriously be evaluated when reconsidering the policy. According to the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ unsafe weather guidelines, K-12 schools are mandated to close when the “temperature and/or wind chill are below -20ºF.” Similarly, a wind chill advisory by the National Weather Service goes in effect when wind chills are 15 degrees below zero or lower.

Other Michigan institutions have already implemented extreme weather policies which address issues that the University’s existing policy does not. Both Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University have policies that provide various communication channels to alert both employees and students about campus closings. Michigan State’s policy even specifies that all departments are forced to have emergency plans in place that include identifying essential employees.

Closure and evacuation policies are especially important for the University around term breaks since a majority of the current student body are long distance travelers — about 57 percent of students are out-of-state residents and 9 percent are international students. Since the reopening of the University coincided with severe weather this year, many students had difficulty returning to Ann Arbor. The many unexpected travel delays also created issues with the academic policy. The first classes of the semester are often used to measure student attendance and track waitlisted students. In an e-mail sent to all students on Jan. 7, Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones wrote that students shouldn’t be dropped if they were unable to attend their first class meetings. However, according to student accounts, some smaller classes such as discussion sections and English classes were hesitant to follow the suggested rule modifications. The modified class drop policy should be made universal throughout the University and be strictly enforced in all departments. By including specific definitions of severe weather and closure policies, the University would ensure the safety of students and employees alike during emergency situations.

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