A snow plow clears the Howe Hall residence parking lot on Dalhousie University campus. (Photo: Alex Faubert)

Winters equal a blizzard of costs and concerns for universities

Halifax’s post-secondary institutions remained open through Wednesday’s snowstorm - what prompted the decision and how do universities and colleges prepare for hazardous weather conditions?

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The Halifax Regional School Board's decision to keep elementary and high schools open on Wednesday has been a topic of debate this week, but post-secondary institutions in HRM went on with business as usual.

Despite Halifax experiencing its first significant snowfall of the season, universities and colleges in the city remained open and fully functional. Conditions surrounding the closure of these institutions and elementary or high schools are vastly different, though. Universities are less likely to shut down, and in fact rarely do, given that students pay considerable amounts of money for their services.

"Dal never really closes, we curtail services," says Charles Crosby, media representative for Dalhousie University. "On average, that would only happen, I'd say, once or twice a year." To compare, the Halifax school board had 4.5 "snow days" last year, one the year before, and 7.5 in 2008-2009.

As is the case with all instances of severe weather, university officials consider the best interests of those affiliated with the school when making the decision between closing, or ‘curtailing', services, and staying open.

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Snow is cleared near the chemistry building on Dalhousie University campus. (Photo: Alex Faubert)

"Our primary concern is the health and safety of our students and staff," says Steve Proctor, communications manager at St. Mary's University. "We have a thousand students who live in residence. That mean there's roughly 5,000 who come in from the greater Halifax region and we're fully aware that a lot of them are coming in by bus or by car. We're very cognizant of that."

In a January press release, Dalhousie University's director of security Michael Burns echoed that sentiment. "The decision to curtail activities or to close the university due to severe weather is always in the interest of public safety... The obvious reason is the impact of weather on safe commuting to campus."

Policies and procedures

HRM consists of seven primary universities and colleges: Dalhousie University and the University of King's College, Saint Mary's University, Mount Saint Vincent University, the Atlantic School of Theology, Nova Scotia Community College and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. That translates to more than 40,000 students in the Halifax region and thousands more in staff to consider when winter weather threatens these school's daily operations.

In the event of severe weather, each institution has protocol in place to prepare students and staff for potentially hazardous weather conditions.

Proctor says St. Mary's tracks Environment Canada weather alerts, police information, the decisions of other universities, and metro transit cancellations or schedule changes to determine whether or not class cancellation or university closure is necessary.

Similar systems are in place at the other HRM universities and colleges. At the bare minimum, each institution's website is updated to inform students of such developments at the beginning of the day, and most use Twitter and Facebook to keep students and staff informed.

Proctor also points to the ‘weather watch' on SMU's website and telephone line, each devoted to weather updates and university closure information. Dalhousie features the Dal Alert system, a service that allows students to subscribe by text to university weather and closure updates.

Cost of maintaining an accessible campus

Aside from concerns about the safety of students and faculty, campus accessibility is a major area of concern for post-secondary institutions during winters, and is an integral part of a school's ability to remain open through harsh winter conditions.

Burns, director of security at Dalhousie, said in January's press release that closure of the university hinges on "the ability of Facilities Management Operations staff to ensure that parking areas, sidewalks, and pathways are safe for pedestrian travel."

For HRM's colleges and universities, snow removal and campus maintenance is an important, but expensive, obligation to keep.

According to Proctor, St. Mary's spends an average of $100,000 annually on snow removal, maintenance and other associated costs. Those same services will cost Dalhousie close to $350,000 this year.

At Nova Scotia Community College, communications specialist Natalie Kenrick says the school has spent an average of $226,500 over the past two years on winter campus maintenance. That only accounts for their three metro locations – the Akerley, Institute of Technology, and Waterfront campuses.

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