Welcome Back Whiteout

Winter storm Juno put an abrupt halt on classes and activities last week as Wheaton College students were greeted with nearly two feet of snow within their first few days of returning to campus from winter break.

Norton, Mass. and the surrounding area received nearly 20 inches of snowfall during the storm, which lasted from Monday evening, Jan. 26, into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The college and its students weathered the storm, maintaining water and electricity in the dorms and dining halls and avoiding emergency evacuation to the Haas Athletic Center. Students took advantage of the cancelled classes to go sledding, build snow sculptures and forts, play “snugby” (rugby in the snow), and lounge in their rooms — often curled up with Netflix.

But for those who had not made a mad dash to CVS or Roche Brothers on Monday evening, there was one place on campus everybody needed to go: Chase Dining Complex, which stayed open for normal hours throughout the entire storm. The College kept pathways and entrances to essential buildings clear for the duration of the snowfall, plowing, shoveling, and salting necessary areas.

During blizzards and other campus or regional emergencies, warning emails and text messages from the Communications Office detail closing procedures, parking bans and staff protocol. “Non-essential staff” members, the emails say, are almost never required to be on campus during such events.

This leaves the question of who the essential staff are, and how they make it possible for students to continue their daily lives without much interruption each time a storm like Juno hits.

I asked John Sullivan, the Assistant Vice President of Business Services, about staff protocol when a blizzard hits. He explains that the college’s emergency protocol and planning is designed to be as flexible as possible, due to the number of different scenarios that could arise.

“The approach is institutional in breadth and collaborative by nature,” said Sullivan in an email. “The main goal is to safeguard college resources — human, physical, and financial — while maintaining our focus on our core academic mission and student experience. Each incident and the circumstances surrounding the nature of the emergency may vary, and our plan is designed to be flexible and adaptable to meet such challenges.”

During the past storm, essential personnel were spread across a wide range of departments: primarily, “the grounds department, tradesmen, steam firemen, Public Safety, Dining services, and Residential Life Staff” provided the direct work necessary to keep the college open.

“Supporting this staff’s direct efforts were a host of other college personnel,” Sullivan added. “From President’s Council, department managers, Communications, Science staff, Human Resources, Building Services, Conference and Event Services, [Student Activities, Involvement and Leadership], Athletics, [Library and Information Services] … to name a few.”

During storms like Juno, there are often statewide travel bans in effect, as there was on Tuesday. This makes it difficult — physically and legally — for staff to travel to campus on snow days. But Sullivan says that, while there are some general exceptions to travel restrictions in these situations, essential staff members generally remain on campus throughout the weather event.

The Grounds Department has a locker room and an adjacent rest area that they can make use of when not in the field; others bring emergency supplies and “camp out” in their offices on campus; and still others live on campus or close enough to travel without trouble.

Sullivan notes that emergency planning is an intensive process and starts early: “President’s Council and the members of our critical incident team, along with their direct reports, spent countless hours behind the scenes before the storm, and during the storm, preparing for and managing campus operations,” said Sullivan.

“Based on current conditions, weather forecasts, the risks they represent and status of regional and statewide mandates, we thoughtfully plan to provide as many services as possible given the circumstances we face.”
Sullivan says it is processes like these that make his work at Wheaton fulfilling.

“It’s a challenge, but we face it with determination, energy and a strong sense of community.  It’s part of what makes Wheaton a distinct place to learn and work,” he said.