Administrators fail to protect staff and student health

Flickr/Petko Bossakov

On Sunday night, hundreds of Loyola students were stunned to hear that, unlike scores of other educational institutions, Loyola University Chicago would be open for business on Monday. Dozens took to Twitter and Facebook to express their frustrations, and to beg for classes to be cancelled in the interests of staff and student health. Yet, with these communications going mostly unanswered, thousands of students arrived on the two campuses, facing dangerous temperatures and wind chills. It has become clear to me that the Loyola administration failed in three areas: It failed to consider the safety of students and staff, it failed to abide by its own policies and it failed to adequately communicate with the student body.

Flickr/Petko Bossakov
Flickr/Petko Bossakov

Early on Sunday, the National Weather Service (NWS) began forecasting that the temperature in Chicago would drop below zero on Sunday evening, and not rise above it for approximately 60 hours, a stretch of temperatures unseen since 1996. Combined with wind-chill values, the NWS predicted that the entirety of Chicago could experience temperatures as low as -45°F. Along the lakefront, where wind gusts are most likely to occur, they could fall below even this. In this weather, the Weather Service warned that “frostbite and hypothermia can occur in a matter of minutes.” These are minutes that students and staff have spent for the last two days walking between classes and residence halls, to meetings or to and from the university on the CTA, endangering their own safety.

Students have been seen huddling in balaclavas, ski goggles and scarves as the plummeting temperatures and wind ravage their faces. It is not inconceivable that a student, especially commuter students forced to take the CTA to and from the university, could have suffered serious injury because they were required to attend classes.

Indeed, this is the reason that more than 400,000 Chicago-area public school students were told to stay home from school — it has been too dangerous for them outside. Unfortunately, it appears that the Loyola administration views their students as less valuable than the City Colleges of Chicago, the University of Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the College of DuPage, John Marshall Law School or Triton College view theirs.

One could be a little more understanding of the administration’s decision if it did not have a plan in place for such a circumstance. Yet Section 4.1 of the university’s Emergency Response Plan for Natural Disasters says, “It is the intent of the University to operate according to normal schedules whenever possible and to cancel classes or close offices only when it is extremely difficult for students and employees to commute.”

These circumstances were clearly met by conditions that were termed severe and dangerous by the NWS. However, the university administrators explained they would not cancel classes as long as the Chicago Transit Authority continued to run public transportation. Yet the running of the “L” and bus services is not at all related to the experience of those who are forced to walk to and wait at stops in order to get to classes.

Instead, these administrators ensured that students and staff would be placed in harm’s way, which violates the core principles of the student promise: care for yourself, others and the community. Moreover, it is clear to me that the Emergency Response Plan is dangerously deficient, as nowhere is the health and safety of students considered a factor in whether classes will take place on days of natural disasters. The casual and callous disregard for the well-being of students and staff is reflected in the blithe attitude of the administration during this entire affair.

Finally, for a university that prides itself on technological ability and communication, students were left alienated and uninformed by the administration. Despite most colleges and schools in Cook County and the surrounding area closing, and dozens of requests for clarification, Loyola University Chicago issued precisely one tweet, at 8:10 p.m. on Sunday night, to clarify the situation: “Loyola community, the University will be open tomorrow, Monday, January 27. All classes will resume as scheduled.”

No Facebook statement. Our inboxes were unusually lacking a message from the hyperactive official Loyola email account. As the Loyola students who do not actively use Twitter would say, “113 characters does not effective communication make.” A complete failure to inform the students and staff that the administration would be ignoring the advice of the NWS, as well as the example of dozens of educational institutions around the city and across the Midwest, resulted in mass confusion.

If the university is able to inform us that Father Garanzini will not be speaking at the Water Tower Campus on Tuesday due to his flight being cancelled, which also demonstrates the appalling conditions that the Ramblers endured, then it could surely have informed us as to the educational situation for Monday.

I traveled 10,000 miles to be at Loyola because it is a fantastic school, and I stand by that. However, I believe that no reasons could justify placing the health and well-being of the students and staff at Loyola University Chicago in danger by mandating that classes resume on Monday. It is clear that there were failures to consider the health of the students, follow university procedure or inform the wider Loyola community as to the decisions being made. This mistake caused serious disruption and could have led to serious injury. The university should undertake to review the Emergency Response Plan to include the health and well-being of its Ramblers. I hope these actions ensure that such a spectacle never occurs again.

James Stancliffe is a contributing columnist. You can contact him at jstancliffe@luc.edu

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