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Bracing for the big chill

Photo: File photo

As the season of mittens, sweaters and steaming hot cocoa approaches, the Drake University campus will shed its fall exterior, trading puddles for snow piles and fallen leaves for fallen snow.

Winter — someone had to say it — is just around the corner, forcing teary-eyed students to trade their shorts, tank tops and flip flops for gloves, coats and scarves.

Fortunately, Drake has an army of winter warriors ready to take on the seasonal changes with a dry eye and a plan to prevent campus from transforming into Des Moines’ second Brenton Skating Plaza.

The Drake facilities department works year-round to keep campus safe, clear and accessible for all students, a particularly tough task amid the unpredictable Iowa winters, according to Grounds Manager Jeff Bosworth.

“I have 11 full-time employees, and we have specific assignments as far as walkways and steps to get everything cleared in a timely manner,” Bosworth said. “The forecasts never seem like they’re exactly right, so we just have to adapt to the changes. Each storm is different in how we go about cleaning campus, whether it’s an ice storm and we’re spreading ice melt depending on a big snow, and we just have to get paths made.”

Interim provost Susan Wright said that the winter planning is well thought out.

“It depends very much on how much snow, of course, and depending on when it starts,” Wright said. “We have basically everybody devoted to that. They have a plan to which buildings get cleared first, and they have to clear the paths for students. The handicapped accessible routes get the first clearing. They do a great job.”

While some students hope for cancellations to finish last-minute homework, others want available classroom time, making Drake students a particularly tough crowd to please, said Wright. Furthermore, many Drake students use “cancellation” and “closing” interchangeably when, in fact, they are two different decisions in the university’s winter weather plan.

A cancellation, Wright said, occurs when classes don’t meet due to weather, but the university, including offices and other operations, remains open. Closing the university, though, requires extreme inclement weather and is avoided if possible.

“We try to not to completely close the university unless it would be too dangerous for staff to come in to campus,” Wright said.

Closing the university or cancelling classes is not an easy decision for the Drake faculty, and several factors influence the decision.

“One of the factors concerning cancellation is whether they can get the walks clear and keep them clear,” Wright said. “If it’s quite windy, it becomes quite difficult to keep the routes clear.”

Bosworth is one of the faculty members who is consulted by the university to make the decision of cancelling classes.

“They will consult with myself and Mark Chambers, the director of facilities, to get our take on whether we can keep up with the snow that’s coming, but it’s more of a university decision,” Bosworth said.

Even if the university closes, Hubbell Dining Hall will remain open. The facilities department takes special care to ensure that students can safely walk from their residence halls to Hubbell, the academic buildings and Olmsted in winter weather.

Students must still look for official confirmation of cancellations beyond the ever-repetitive “snow day” Facebook statuses. There are several avenues for students seeking university confirmed cancellation and closing information.

“There’s a cancellation line that you can always just call,” Wright said. “As soon as the decision is made, all the local television and radio stations are notified. Our marketing and communications people get on and make sure all of that information gets out.”

Another concern for Drake students who prefer to bike, skate and scoot to class surrounds the safety of their wheels entering the season of icy surfaces and slippery snow.  Though it’s a personal decision, Wright recommends that students exercise caution when weighing their campus transportation options beyond walking — and she said to wear an extra scarf.

“As long as things are still clear, and as long as they feel like they’re not too cold riding a bike, I don’t think there’s anything to stop them,” Wright said.

Iowa winters provide an excuse to sport those new mittens, form a first-name basis with the best barista at Starbucks and a chance to use quality judgment.

“It’s the responsibility of staff, students and faculty to dress accordingly and wear the appropriate footwear,” Bosworth said. “No flip-flops.”

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