Snow days

Staff members work through the night to clear over 29 miles of JMU sidewalks of snow. 

In preparation for snowfall before a day of classes, there are up to 50-60 facilities management staff members working through the night shoveling snow. 

“It’s hard to do while the snow is coming down,” Craig Short, executive director of facilities and construction, said. “I call it snow fighting.”

Facilities Management first prioritizes areas such as fire lanes and handicap-accessible areas, then moves down a hierarchy of locations such as dining halls, libraries and UREC. There are over 29 miles of sidewalks at JMU that must be cleared.

“We have managed to make the expectations for snow removal so high,” Short said. “People expect every inch of a sidewalk to be clear, but it’s difficult. If you’ve worked all night, sometimes these guys put in 16 hours of hard work.”

While staff members work to shovel snow, administrators are busy working to decide if a cancellation is necessary. Public Safety, Facilities Management, the city of Harrisonburg and Harrisonburg Department of Public Transportation are in constant communication with each other. They rely on each other’s area of expertise for the best information.

“Ultimately, our job is to provide students with an education,” Bill Wyatt, university spokesman,  said. “We want to make sure that everybody stays safe. We want our students to be in the classroom, our faculty want to be in the classroom.”

JMU Public Safety pulls all the available information together. Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance, Charles King, makes a recommendation to Jonathan Alger, president of JMU, who has the ultimate say in whether the university is open or closed. Once the decision is made, University Communications relays it to the public.

While many students believe the university notifies students of cancellations so late because JMU wants to prevent partying, Wyatt said the school just wants to make sure that it makes the most informed decision possible.

“We will wait until the last minute because the weather forecast is constantly changing,” Wyatt said. “The closer we get to the storm, the more accurate the information is.”

According to Burgess Lindsey, assistant residency administrator at the Virginia Department of Transportation, information from weather forecasts including the National Weather Service is used to determine how many trucks they need to clear snow for the roads.

“JMU receives our news releases (including road-condition updates) and follows our social media postings,” Lindsey said in an email.

Regardless of whether Harrisonburg City Public Schools are open or closed, JMU makes its own decision. Wyatt said that during the threat of the hurricane early last semester, some students assumed that JMU would close since Bridgewater College closed for a day. However, Bridgewater sits on a river, and forecasts predicted 10-12 inches of rain.

“There are a lot of complicating factors it seems like with each storm,” Wyatt said. “Every agency has their own specific area of expertise — we have to rely on that for a comprehensive approach.”

According to Wyatt, the chief of police is on the phone with many different agencies and administrations. An individual from Public Safety will also drive through student apartment complexes and survey how clear they are. They also constantly check various weather apps for the most up-to-date information.

“We assess at 2 or 3 in the morning where we’re at and reconvene every hour once we sort of know where we’re at,” Short said. “We consult with the administration and kind of collectively make the decision based on information we have.”

Contact Matthew Sasser at sasserma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Matthew Sasser is a sophomore writing, rhetoric, and technical communication major. Beyond writing, he enjoys skateboarding, playing bass guitar, ultimate frisbee and is an avid Taco Bell enthusiast.