SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – After an apparent mismatch between weather and a call for remote learning last week, the University of Utah offered a look into how it decides when to give weather alerts, which it says requires research, a lot of planning, and a little bit of educated guesswork in forecasting the weather.
At the start of April, Utah was hit with one last major snowstorm to close out what has been dubbed an “endless winter.”
The U of U issued a weather alert to get ahead of the storm, pushing Monday’s classes to remote learning. Another weather alert was pushed out by the University calling for an in-person “normal” day on Tuesday. Only these alerts felt a little backward to students and faculty as the storm moved into the state Monday, but dumped heavily on Tuesday.
According to the National Weather Service, the Salt Lake City area received 5.5 inches of snow on Monday. Tuesday was significantly worse, receiving 8.5 inches of snow as the storm slammed the state before moving on out for warmer weather.
Last week’s apparent mismatch in weather and alerts was the result of timing. Typically, the U’s weather alerts are sent early in the morning but those come too late for many employees, students, and instructors who are already on their way to campus. In a bit of a change of protocol, the weather alerts last week were sent the night before the storms actually hit the Salt Lake Valley.
“In an effort to give everyone on campus more time to plan for how or if they would come to campus, we did our best risk analysis,” said Interim Director of Emergency Management Stuart Moffatt. “The snow hadn’t yet started to fall.”
According to the U of U, whenever the National Weather Service issues a Winter Storm Advisory, a team of campus leaders meets to discuss the forecast.
This team of leaders includes those from academic affairs, communications, auxiliary services, facilities, housing, hospitals, health and safety, student affairs, general counsel and more. Others from outside of campus leadership may also join the meeting to discuss conditions and snow removal on streets leading to campus.
Next, based on the forecast such as the expected timing of when the storm will hit the hardest, the path of the storm, how it will impact travel, and how well U facility crews will be able clear sidewalks and parking lots the campus leadership considers three options:
- Scheduling a late start to classes, child care centers and other campus operations.
- Moving classes and meetings to remote.
- Calling a “snow day.”
Once a decision is reached, a campus alert is written and sent out to the community. The U of U rarely calls a snow day though, saying the last one called was in 2020.
Ultimately, the decision on what to do with classes falls on instructors, with University officials saying nothing is worth putting lives at risk or having a catastrophic car accident.
“Every professor and instructor should feel empowered to look out the window and make a common-sense decision regarding whether to teach remotely or cancel their classes,” said Associate Vice President for Faculty Sarah Projansky.