Laura Bell’s daily commute from Ripples, N.B. to the University of New Brunswick typically comes in at around half an hour.
Last Monday, the third-year accounting student spent double that time inching her way through what she described as whiteout conditions.
She couldn’t afford to miss an essential class, and when UNB’s doors remained open following the latest in a string of storms hammering the region this winter, she felt she had no other option.
“It was an awful drive. I knew if I didn’t go to my accounting class I’d be completely lost, [but] there were times I couldn’t see the car in front of me it was blowing so bad,” said Bell.
“I’m worried it’s going to take something as serious as a fatal accident of a UNB student or faculty member for them [administration] to realize how important the decision is to cancel school or delay school for one day [is].”
Bell was one of a slate of students to raise their voices Monday against UNB’s decision to stay “open for business” in light of the blizzard that dropped 33 centimetres of snow on the city on Sunday.
“It feels as though UNB is unaware that it’s situated in Canada,” said second-year arts student Kirsten Stackhouse.
“My main issue was that whenever the school is open, people with mandatory attendance classes or those who have something due or a test to write feel absolutely obligated to be there, regardless of their better judgement, and they’re put in a dangerous situation.”
Several called on UNB to develop a storm closure policy that takes such concerns into account.
“Referring to the campus as simply ‘open’ implies fully operational and that puts a lot of pressure on everyone, particularly those who travel by vehicle — they are counting on the school to determine if the risk of missed opportunity/commitments is greater than the risk of travel,” said Amy Elizabeth Savile, an interdisciplinary graduate student.
“I think having a ‘reduced functions’ mode would be valuable. Important lecture points wouldn’t be made, attendance wouldn’t be mandatory, and drivers temper their expectation that a) the trip will be safe and clear and b) the school will be fully operational for the day.”
Vice-president academic Tony Secco said academics are not taken into account when making decisions about campus-wide closures, a process he said is determined using “common sense” and not any kind of formal policy.
“It could be the most important exams going on ever and that has no bearing on the decision. The only thing that has bearing on the decision is safety and access,” said Secco.
“I check with security who’s in contact with facilities management at 5 in the morning and I find out what the campus will be like at 7 in the morning. And if the campus is accessible … then the next thing I look for is what the city is like … if the busses are running it’s pretty well a go for the university.”
On Monday, at which time Secco said the storm had abated, 23 classes were cancelled. He said that “an individual has to determine for themselves whether it’s safe.”
“You don’t put a policy in for this stuff. The policy is common sense. If it’s too dangerous to come in, don’t come in,” he said.
“My note to students is always, ‘which is more important: your life or that class?’ If they say class then I say maybe we should talk about your priorities.