Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Snow Daze

This morning dawned bright and clear and dangerous: the coldest weather ever recorded in Waterloo. Environment Canada was telling people to stay indoors and leave their taps running. Daycares, all the schools, our dance studio, garbage collection, day programs for seniors, all cancelled. Exposed skin could freeze in 5 minutes. A blizzard or blinding squalls were also predicted.

The university? Remained open.

Now, this is Canada. It gets cold. Dudes, I'm from Kirkland Lake, Ontario--45 minutes away from where that guy filled the Super Soaker with boiling water and sprayed ice crystals. I see your Uggs and raise you my knee-high Sorels and an array of lined deer-stalker hats. However. This was extreme weather, full stop, and certainly extreme for Waterloo. Everything else in town was closed. Many students rely on unreliable public transit, and waiting for buses outside is dangerous today. Hell, parking in our assigned space 1km away from our offices exposes us to dangers in this weather. If you can get your car to start. And navigate the roads. Avoiding those drivers who haven't cleared their windshields. We should have closed.

The university's closure policy used to be to follow what the local school boards decided. This was a good policy not least because the school boards get the word out before 7am, while Monday on campus, for example, the university put out its closure decision ("We're open!") at 8:52, after we'd had a 6 inch snowfall overnight and all the school buses were canceled. Attendance ... was sketchy.

No, the really great thing about tying the university's closure decision to the school boards was that it made life a whole lot easier for parents. Most of us can't arrange last minute child care. Some of us couldn't afford it even if we could. Those of us who are contingent do not feel safe bringing children into the classroom and risking looking "unprofessional." Those of us with tenure might still not be able to manage our kids and our students simultaneously, depending on age, temperament, and subject matter. Students with children are even less likely to feel able to bring them to class. And I know I'm not bringing my daughter to whatever meetings I still have to go to: she knows too much from dinner chatter and I live in terror of what she might blurt out. Ahem.

The university keeps proclaiming its interest in work/life balance, and in recruiting and retaining female faculty. (The university has a big new daycare! It was closed today, due to extreme weather ...) It remains true that in most families, when the kids are suddenly off school, it's Mom's problem. At my house it's my problem if Dad's got meetings, and it's Dad's problem if I've got teaching or meetings. It's very stressful, and today our daughter spent the morning playing the My Little Pony video game on her father's iPad, in his office. I dropped them off right at the building door, before driving to the closest parking lot I could pay dearly for, and staggering in to my meeting.

I know this is a very specialized problem. I know that many businesses in the so-called "real world" don't close in bad weather. But taking "sick days" to deal with child care on snow days is not really possible if you're teaching or taking classes.

All I'm saying is, I guess, that the old system was more humane. It aided work life balance, and was attentive to the needs of women in particular. Sometimes we got a snow day that turned into soft rain and a bad call, maybe once out of every 10 snow days (so every 4 or 5 years). I think that's a fair price to pay for making the lives of a community of more than 30,000 undergraduate students and 5100 grad students, 1100 (full-time permanent) faculty members and 2200 staff members. The university is the size of a big town, and has a lot of decision-making power, and it seems to keep choosing to grit its teeth in the face of real life, domestic and climatological. The rest of us are grinding them, stressed out and frozen and dragging seven year olds across the frozen steppes with us. Take the lead, UW: be better.


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