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Student Safety in Subzero Temperatures


Janelle Penny

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Dangerously cold temperatures will sweep the Midwest and Northeast this week, with some locations reaching windchills of -40 to -50 degrees F. Temperatures like these can cause frostbite within minutes, a risky proposition for anyone walking to class.

Many schools in the affected area cancelled classes in light of the
extreme temperatures. The University of Iowa, for example, cancelled all
classes for the first time since December 2009, while Iowa State University is observing its first closing since 2014.
But suspending classes for a couple of days is just the tip of the
iceberg when it comes to keeping students safe during a deep freeze.
Here are five things you can do right now to mitigate the polar vortex’s
impacts on your campus.

1. Master Your Mass Communication

Just like any other emergency, you need to communicate with students
through multiple channels to make sure everyone is getting the message.
Use texts for one- to two-sentence missives – for example, “All classes
are cancelled from 4 p.m. Tuesday until noon Thursday” – and include a
shortened link to more detailed instructions on your website. Issue
details by email too, since students are likely to check there before
they think to look at your website.

Longer messages should emphasize the importance of being prepared.
Frostbite and hypothermia can develop in as little as 5 minutes when the
windchill is this severe.

2. Create Cold Prep Tips

Not everyone at your institution is used to cold weather.
International students and out-of-state students from warmer climates
may have underestimated how cold winter can get, especially during a
period as severe as this one. Make sure your communications include tips
on personal safety and taking good care of residence hall rooms.

“Our hall directors got multiple emails to tell us to keep our
windows closed and locked because the wind might be able to push them
open more, and if you’re not in the room at the time, you could freeze
the pipes,” explains Andrew Grant, a freshman at Iowa State University
in Ames, Iowa, majoring in electrical and mechanical engineering.
“They’ve been reaching out to us with tips on how to stay safe in
dangerous cold weather.”

Students used to warmer weather may benefit from tips on dressing for
the weather. Basic instructions like “wear layers” or “wear a warm
coat” don’t fully convey the seriousness of the situation to anyone
who’s not used to cold winters.

“Invest in a coat that goes down to your knees, if not further,”
suggests MacKenzie Male, a junior studying biochemistry at the
University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “Coats have different
temperature ratings, so get one that is going to be OK for negative
degree weather. Hats, scarves, a good pair of gloves and a good pair of
shoes to walk in the snow when the sidewalks aren’t completely cleared.
You need something that will keep the wind from getting to your skin.”

3. Coordinate with Faculty

Encourage faculty to disseminate their own messages with instructions
about each class. Students who expected to take tests or hand in papers
this week will want to know what to do, especially if they’re expected
to complete readings or assignments during the cancelled classes.

Ryan Downing, a junior at the University of Iowa studying political
science, ethics and public policy, noted that one professor recorded a
lecture that students will watch instead of physically going to class.
Other professors might send out lecture notes or PowerPoint slides or
assign extra readings. For future emergencies that don’t warrant a
school-wide closing, Kirkwood Community College sophomore Colin
VandeWeerd urges faculty and administrators to consider students who
commute to class.

“If the school doesn’t cancel but you think people are going to have a
rough time getting to your class or you yourself can’t make it, don’t
put yourself in danger,” says VandeWeerd, a liberal arts major at
Kirkwood’s Cedar Rapids campus. “Just call off class and have them do
something in the book or by email. You could have people getting in
pileups on the interstate. Some of that could be prevented if people
just stay home.”

4. Publicize Routes and Transportation

Make sure students know the warmest routes around campus. First-year
and transfer students will especially appreciate the tips. Josie Te
Grotenhuis, a freshman at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa,
recommends “building-hopping,” or taking routes that pass through
buildings rather than a more direct route that’s exposed to the cold the
entire time. Students with cars can park closer to class buildings if
spots are available, Downing notes.

If you have the resources, consider making it easier for students to
get across campus even if classes are cancelled. Central College in
Pella, Iowa, notified students about a shuttle between the residence
halls, the student center and the main dining area, says Zach Jansen, a
Central sophomore studying business and computer science. Some of the
residence halls are up to 10 minutes from these important areas, so
reliable transportation is vital when frostbite can set in within 5

Schools with skywalks, heated underground tunnels or other sheltered
infrastructure may even be able to maintain their regular academic
schedule. Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, features skywalks that
connect the library and academic buildings. The most distant residence
hall is only a 3- to 4-minute walk from the nearest skywalk entrance, so
Knights can safely get to class without difficulty, explains freshman
Alex Stone, a biology major.

5. Plan for Disadvantaged Students

Not all students have the ability to invest in extra layers for
weather that’s colder than they were expecting, Male says. Connect needy
students with available resources so that they can get adequate gloves,
coats and hats if what they have isn’t warm enough.

“Some students on campus don’t have the proper clothing or proper
coats,” Male says. “I don’t know if they can afford them or not, but
there are a lot of people who are unprepared for the weather and I don’t
think administrators look at all the factors of students maybe not
being able to afford things. A good [temperature-rated] coat is going to
be well over $200.”

Your students are counting on you to keep them safe, so make
decisions based on the best available information and make sure the
message gets to everyone who needs it. Staying in close contact and
keeping students updated will ensure everyone has the information they
need to stay out of harm’s way.

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