University Services Keep On-campus Life Going during Inclement Weather

Posted: January 11, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

The coming of winter to the Northern Virginia region brings with it the possibility of snowstorms, ice and freezing rain that sometimes delay or shut down area schools, including George Mason.

While commuter students, most staff and faculty can stay safely inside their homes on snow days, a variety of university services remain open in order to serve the on-campus resident student population at the Fairfax Campus.

It all begins in the early hours of the morning, when most of us are still sleeping. Together with Provost Peter Stearns, Physical Plant Director Larry Spaine and Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens decide whether to close or delay the opening of the university because of inclement weather.

After a decision is reached, it is forwarded for posting on the university’s web site, telephone information line and to local news media.

However, not everyone gets to sip hot chocolate and enjoy the day off when the university is closed because of weather. Major tasks, such as clearing the campus during snow and ice storms, require the employees of Physical Plant to come out in force.

Essential Employees Work on Priorities

After they receive confirmation from the Washington Area Council of Governments, an operating plan is put into place. If inclement weather is due to arrive overnight, all essential Physical Plant employees come into work, generally around 4 a.m. After they arrive, the forecast is checked again and management receives reports about conditions on the campuses and on the roads leading directly to the campuses.

“Our first priority in clearing the campus is to keep the university facilities open for emergency access,” says Spaine. “The second priority is in the support of essential activities that are key to keeping the university functioning, such as the clearing of paths and sidewalks and providing safe access to the Student Union Buildings. After the main priorities have been met, the campus parking lots and secondary pathways and sidewalks will be cleared.”

But even when the university is closed, campus officials still have to meet the needs of the more than 4,000 residential students, and plans are always in place to take care of those students when weather cancels class.

“It is critical for us to provide a place for students to continue their usual routine as much as possible during inclement weather, as one of the concepts of a student center is to be the ‘living room’ of the campus,” says Johnson Center and Student Unions Director David Atkins. “During inclement weather, we have full-time staff who serve as essential personnel responsible for maintaining service as close as possible to our normal standards.”

Students building a snow fort
Resident students can check out a snow shovel to dig out their cars; later that shovel may come in handy when it’s time to build a snow fort.
Creative Services photo

Once the university decides to close, Atkins’ office utilizes a roster of essential employees as well as residential student workers who volunteer to assist in managing Student Union Buildings (SUB) I and II. On-campus operations are supervised and directed by Atkins and his nonstudent managerial staff, who typically work from home via telephone and e-mail.

Making the Best of the Situation

The Johnson Center and SUB II operate on limited schedules during inclement weather, generally closing at 9 p.m. The exact schedule is adjusted when the closing comes outside of an academic semester or when service is being provided to a previously scheduled on-campus event.

SUB I usually closes at the same time the university as a whole shuts down. “We try to keep SUB I open as long as feasible, but we direct our primary attention to the Johnson Center and SUB II, where the residential dining hall exists,” says Atkins.

Among the services that remain open for residential students are the Express convenience store in the Johnson Center and Ciao Hall in SUB II. The Bistro, also in the Johnson Center, will open for breakfast during the workweek. Ike’s Diner, near the majority of the residence halls, will typically follow its regular late night and early morning hours of operation. After staffing is set for these eateries, La Patisserie and other food court options may also be opened.

“If weather is severe, such as a hurricane or a serious snowstorm, our weather emergency plan designates that we put key hourly employees in the Best Western in the City of Fairfax on the night or day before and arrange to transport them en masse early the next morning,” says Michael Galvin, director of marketing and community affairs, Dining Services. “When the service day begins, we consolidate labor and services depending on how many people are on hand.”

Dining Services will serve emergency box meals out of nondining facilities, such as the P.E. Building, to areas of the campus when outside walking conditions are deemed to be poor. If weather is not too severe, the office follows inclement weather procedures that provide service on a reduced schedule and at fewer locations.

However, with all the help that is provided to students and the university community during severe weather situations, the staff can only go so far. State insurance regulations prohibit the use of the Physical Plant’s employees and equipment in the removal of snowbound private vehicles. That includes towing, pushing or jumpstarting. Snow and ice are removed and treated on parking lot surfaces only in the lanes that run through each lot section.

Following the heavy snowfalls in 2003, the Physical Plant staff purchased several hundred snow shovels, which were issued to the Office of Housing and Residence Life. With a valid student ID, residential students may borrow shovels to dig out their vehicles.

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