GV cancels week of classes due to Polar Vortex, sets school record

2/2/19, GVSU Allendale Campus, Polar Vortex.  GVL / Katherine Vasile

2/2/19, GVSU Allendale Campus, Polar Vortex.  GVL / Katherine Vasile

Alexandra Loyd

In the last week, Michigan has faced its coldest days since 1996, rightly claiming the week’s weather forecast title of Polar Vortex 2019. 

The temperatures hit record lows for the last two decades, with highs below zero and wind chills hitting 50 below zero in some parts of the state, making conditions dangerous for anyone that spends more than five minutes outside. 

This and the nearly two feet of snow were enough to close Grand Valley State University for the entire school week, breaking all kinds of records. 

“To my knowledge, this is unprecedented at GVSU — but then again, so is this weather,” said Associate Vice President for Facilities Services Tim Thimmesch. “The last time campus closed for two days in a row was back in the 1978 blizzard. (Closing for) five is a record.”

When the university is closed, all classes are cancelled and all buildings are closed except for those where essential staff work. Essential staff include the Department of Public Safety Services, Facilities Services, Food Service, Housing, Information Technology and Fieldhouse Management. 

On Monday, Jan. 28, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency in order to address threats to public health and safety related to forecast. 

“It’s challenging because we’re looking at 25,000 students, and it’s hard to identify a solution that’s going to be the best for everybody,” said Assistant Director of Public Safety and Grand Valley Police Department Capt. Jeff Stoll. “A lot of it is looking at safety on the roads, because we don’t want to expose anyone to unnecessary danger. Walking to class in bad snow isn’t hazardous — it can be frustrating, but it isn’t hazardous. Commuters, though, are put more at risk in this weather.”

Monday, Jan. 28 was the first snow day of the week for GVSU students and was declared on Sunday night before the predicted 11 inches of snow began to fall. 

Stoll said that closing the night before is rare, but that it speaks to the university’s desire to be proactive in making sure that all students are safe. Monday morning commuters may have been put at risk if they had waited until the morning to cancel classes, as the university usually does. 

“It is certainly unusual to make the decision to close the night before, so I can’t remember when the last time that occurred, but the goal is always safety,” said Vice President for Administrative Services Scott Richardson. “We don’t want students, faculty or staff to take undue risks getting to campus.” 

Richardson said that the decision to close GVSU campuses is overall determined by his position, but that the decision is a big discussion consisting of people from campus housing, facilities, public safety, GVPD and the president’s cabinet. 

“The two biggest players in the decision are (public safety) and facilities,” Stoll said. “Facilities services of course, is responsible for all of the maintenance staff, the custodial staff and most importantly for (bad weather), the grounds staff — those that are out plowing and cleaning up the snow.” 

Stoll said that GVPD and public safety are responsible for not only focusing on the information related to GVSU’s campus, but the weather information for all surrounding cities, as students commute from all over the place. 

“When we’re looking at closing, it’s impacting all of west Michigan, not just our little spot in Allendale, so we’re pretty plugged into all the surrounding sheriff’s offices and road commissions around,” Stoll said. “We see what information they’re providing for us through the national weather service — we use a lot of open source media that we have available, that we condense and present to the president’s cabinet, where they make the final decision.”

Most if not all K-12 schools and various universities in the Lower Peninsula closed for at least Wednesday and Thursday during the record low temperatures, but many universities in the Upper Peninsula remained open all week.