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What happens when there's winter weather in the forecast?

Have you wondered what goes into making a decision about what will happen at Pulaski Tech if central Arkansas gets hit with another round of snow and ice? Once the college closes, what happens next?

To the Pulaski Technical College administration, it's serious business. With seven locations spread out across a four-county service area and well over 11,000 students and employees affected, the decision to close is never taken lightly. The proverbial buck stops with PTC President Margaret Ellibee, but there is a lot of input that she considers before making the call... or not.

When the forecast predicts a winter storm, there are many considerations that must be weighed. The first consideration is always the safety of the campus community. If the roads are slick and it is dangerous to travel, the best thing to do is to close the college.

When conditions are already bad and many other area institutions like public schools, other colleges and business begin to close, the decision is fairly cut and dried. If weather conditions have yet to deteriorate but meteorologists predict a chance of snow, sleet or ice, the challenge of predicting the right time to close is considerably trickier.

While the college feels responsible for the safety of students, employees and visitors, there is also a legitimate expectation that the college will continue to conduct business for as long as possible. Students are paying customers, and the college has an obligation to provide the education they are paying for. Likewise, faculty and staff have jobs to do, and access to their offices, the IT system, and other college infrastructure is important. Many community groups have activities at the college almost every day, and PTC does not want to inconvenience them, either.

As an aside it should be noted that when the participants in the decision-making, communications and physical plant plans are absent, there is a succession plan in place. Mike DeLong, Provost and Executive Vice President, stands in for Dr. Ellibee in her absence. Likewise, other key players have backups.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: It is 5 a.m. on a Monday in January. The temperature is 33 degrees and predicted to fall to 25 by noon. Light rain is already falling, and the rain is expected to change to sleet by 8 a.m. and snow after that.

By this time, Dr. Ellibee has been paying close attention to weather forecasts for 48 hours. She and other college administrators consult local TV broadcasts, the National Weather Service, the Highway Department, and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. If a weather system is moving into central Arkansas and conditions behind the weather system have clearly gone from bad to worse, this is also a consideration.

After phone calls to UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson and area public school superintendents, a collaborative decision has been reached. It's time to close the college.

Dr. Ellibee then contacts college administrators in charge of police and public safety, facilities and communications.

First, a short message is sent to all subscribers to the RAVE text alert system. This system will deliver a text message to 4,400-plus cell phones instantaneously, as well as send an email to all 14,000 users of the college email system. A notice is posted on the front page of the college website and to the college Facebook and Twitter accounts. Local TV and radio stations are also notified. With these communications measures, the college can reach tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes.

As soon as it is practical to do so, the college physical plant/facilities personnel will return to campus and work diligently to remove snow and ice from parking lots, sidewalks and stairs. Private contractors often are hired to assist with these measures.

The college president, along with other administrators, keeps a close eye on the weather conditions to see when it is prudent to reopen campus. There have been instances when, after several days of bad driving conditions, main roads are clear enough to warrant reopening, but outlying areas may still experience adverse conditions. In these cases -or any other when safety is a concern- the student or employee is urged to err on the side of caution as they consider getting back on the roads.

What if the college is already open for business when the snow starts to fall?

Once again, the safety of the campus community is paramount. The decision must be made in a way that minimizes risk by allowing people to get off the roads before conditions deteriorate.

This is also a tricky situation that warrants close attention and collaboration with the community. For instance, if public schools in the area close, thousands of public school students need to be picked up by their parents, many of whom work or attend classes at the college.

At the college's Main Campus on Scenic Hill in North Little Rock, there is the additional consideration of a traffic bottleneck where Pershing Boulevard intersects Pike Avenue. The college's neighbors at the Veterans Administration Hospital/Fort Roots depart on the same road, so the coordination of closing the two campuses may prevent a massive traffic jam. As a rule of thumb, the college seeks to delay closing until 30 minutes after the VA closes. Faculty and staff are then encouraged to delay their departure by 30 minutes to allow students to leave first.

"To close or not to close" is a question that affects the schedules and safety of thousands of people. Unfortunately, pleasing all the people all the time is impossible. There are frequent cries to close the college based on a weather forecast that calls for a small chance for brief snow or ice. Other people insist that, while there is work to be done, the college should stay open until the city is a solid sheet of ice. Neither of these extremes works well for a "one size fits all" scenario.

Ultimately, the decision to travel to Pulaski Tech when the weather looks iffy is an individual one. The college's official inclement weather policy reads, in part, "Because Pulaski Technical College is a commuter campus, inclement weather has a greater adverse impact than on a residential campus. The effects fall unevenly on individual students as road conditions and circumstances vary. Thus, individual decisions are required when hazardous weather conditions exist but the college is officially open."

So if you feel that driving conditions are unsafe, use your best judgment and stay off the road. Send that instructor an email or a text, or call your boss and explain the situation. Safety comes first, and no one can be blamed for that priority. Rest assured that the college leadership shares your concerns.

Pulaski Technical College
3000 West Scenic Drive
North Little Rock, AR 72118
Phone: (501) 812-2200

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