At 4 a.m. Thursday, three Georgetown administrators convened on a conference call to decide whether thousands of university students and faculty would have class.
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Christopher Augostini, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences and School of Medicine Executive Dean Howard Federoff and Provost Robert Groves are delegated with the task of deciding university operating status. If the call is particularly early in the morning, this group is replaced by representatives from each department, including Medical Center Senior Associate Dean Elliot Crook, Registrar and Assistant Provost John Q. Pierce, and Associate Vice President for Human Resources John Greeno.
The forecast called for a heavy day of snow, possibly up to 10 inches, but as the call began, there was only rain. Around 15 minutes prior, the federal government had announced its closing as well as numerous school districts the evening before. But the storm was coming in the midst of midterms, two days before Georgetown’s spring break.
“I kept hoping there would be some maneuvering room to start late because I had heard from faculty members who were very worried about their students having to miss the exam,” Pierce said.
Eventually the group decided to close Georgetown University for the duration of the day. The information was posted on the university website at 4:35 am. Students received texts and emails shortly after that.
Every time a major weather event is expected for D.C., the Council of Governments, an association consisting of all the local governments as well as Metro and the federal government, convenes via conference call. The group conferences at 9 p.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the timing of the weather event, and receives a briefing from the National Weather Service.
After the Council of Government’s teleconference, Georgetown’s administrators convene at 10 p.m. or 4 a.m. Students can expect word from the university shortly thereafter.
A number of factors go into deciding whether Georgetown remains open or closed, according to Associate Vice President for Risk Management Joseph Yohe.
“The university utilizes a ‘risk-based’ decision-making process for making operational status decisions related to inclement weather,” Yohe wrote in an email.
The university pays attention to what service disruptions Metro will be running, as many faculty members rely on public transportation to commute to campus. Georgetown also closely watches the actions of the federal government and area schools. But the final deciding factor is how well the Office of Facilities can clear the campus for student safety, according to Pierce.
During weather emergencies, the Office of Facilities asks for volunteers to work extra hours, preparing the campus for snow and clearing the snow after it begins to fall. Wednesday night into Thursday, about half a dozen facilities workers stayed at the Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center, according to Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey.
“It’s one team, one mission,” Morey said. “Part of that is that you don’t necessarily want to send people away. The first reason is, in a snow like this, you don’t want your people out, driving on the street. Secondarily, if they go, they might get stuck and not be able to come back.”
Snow removal involves the efforts of approximately 100 to 150 staff members working at various times of the day and night to ensure the university is safe to navigate.
In addition to snow plows and salt, the university utilizes its snow melter machine, which uses steam to heat and melt large snow piles brought in by front loaders.
“Instead of pushing that snow around, you’ve got to put it somewhere,” Morey said. “We probably wouldn’t necessarily need it in a snow storm of this size [referring to Thursday’s storm], but, boy, it sure makes it easier to do that. And then those piles don’t sit around for so long.”
Pierce and Morey both said that having an instructional continuity system eases the burden of snow days.
“I think that the instructional continuity policy opens up a whole other set of options for us,” Pierce said.
The instructional continuity system, which allows professors to still hold classes remotely during snow days, was implemented during the 2013-2014 academic school year.
But Pierce said that instructional continuity plans are never a proper substitute for in-person class time.
“It’s my sense that switching to an instructional continuity plan is two or three times harder on the faculty member than going to class,” Pierce said. “And our programs are planned as face-to-face programs so we try to make sure that they can continue that way.”