When Should You Cancel Classes?

Tomorrow, Northwestern University will cancel classes for the second time this week. The temperature today was around a balmy -11 (feels like ~ -30 with the wind) and while tomorrow will be warmer, the morning will not be much better than today. The university cautiously decided to cancel all classes then, including classes at the Chicago campuses which include the medical school and law school. Fun fact: the med school had only two snow/inclement weather days in history up until this week.

Which has me considering, from both a utilitarian perspective and legal perspective: why did we cancel class? My fiance and I live two blocks away from our classes. On a day I walk slowly and hit the traffic light, it might take five minutes to walk to class. Even though it is cold outside, I could have bundled up and I would not have lost any fingers to frostbite. An observant reader will now point out that *other* students might not live so close however, and likely would have waited for a bus, had to walk or other be more exposed to the elements than myself. My response: So what?

Those students chose to live further away from class and as a result these students have a harder time reaching class on bad weather days. They did this for financial reasons and social reasons. Usually, when the weather is inclement the university does not forgive them, but NU chose to in this case. Bad snow increases the chance of car accidents yet we force students to navigate bus and unshoveled walk ways to get to class. What’s the difference?

A better analogy might actually be one not related to weather at all. Imagine a student who wanted to save a bunch of rent so lived in a really shady part of town. Should the school avoid any activities that require the student to leave the house before 6AM or return after 10PM to avoid crime?

I think the school can validly expect the student to bundle up properly or take a cab, even if it costs extra money. In the medical school case this is especially relevant. Science classes are not mandatory and are all recorded- my fiance tells me only 1/2 the class shows up on any given day anyway, so who would have been harmed? Other industries require workers to make attempts to show up no matter the weather (bus/train operators and the medical field for example).

There are other scenarios (than cold or crime) I am more sympathetic to. Tornadoes, which are not all that uncommon here, might be a reason to cancel school. Unlike the cold, there is not much you can do to properly prepare for a tornado if you’re already outside. The danger is pretty unforeseeable until it’s probably too late to do anything about.

Which leads me to believe there must be some sort of foreseeability or certainty scale that leads to these decisions by the university. While we can calculate the risk to students of coming to class in a medium snow, or living in higher-crime (but cheaper!) areas students tend to live in, they seem further removed and less certain to occur. This is especially true in tornado cases. Temporally, it should all equal out in the end (the risk of crime after repeated late night trips in a bad neighborhood changes the calculation significantly) but in a legal sense I can see how that would seem too remote to be worth considering when trying to limit liability.

There are two items this exposition ignored consciously as out of the scope of the argument I wanted to make. One is that the University also has to consider the employees’ safety when making these decisions. I remember this was a big consideration for our high school when they decided snow days: if too many teachers are literally snowed in, what’s the point of having class? Secondly, in this particular case, since this chill came at the tail end of a vacation, a great many students and professors are not back yet to begin the year, and these days lessen the blow of that. (Apparently the jet fuel at O’Hare is frozen…)