Ithacans will be lucky if thermometers crack zero by 10 a.m. on Thursday. The wind chill will make it feel 20 to 30 degrees colder than that. Exposed skin could become frostbitten in just 10 minutes.
Cornell plans to remain open on Thursday, administrators said, shrugging off a last-minute email blast from dozens of students, a petition signed by thousands more encouraging the University to cancel classes and a wind chill warning from the National Weather Service.
Rick Burgess, the vice president of infrastructure, properties and planning, said in an interview Wednesday night that he and other administrators expected to keep Cornell open.
“That’s the plan,” Burgess said. “It’s always a balancing act. If you do decide to close, that creates a whole host of complications. It’s a big decision and we don’t want to have to do that, but that’s always balanced with a desire for safety.”
President Martha E. Pollack makes the final call on whether to close the University based on the recommendation of a group of vice presidents including Burgess, as well as Cornell’s top lawyer, its police chief and others. Before coming to Cornell, Pollack was criticized when her previous campus remained open despite a similar wind chill warning.
Tompkins County and much of Central New York will remain under the wind chill warning until 6 p.m. Thursday. The National Weather Service warned of dangerously cold wind chill temperatures that could get as low as minus 29 early on Thursday morning. Gusts of wind may reach 25 mph around midday Thursday and the wind chill is not expected to rise above minus 8 until Friday morning.
People should stay indoors, the service said, and if they must go out, should limit their time outside and dress in layers. The TCAT bus agency will offer free rides on all routes on Thursday and TCAT officials expect its buses to operate as usual.
The Cornell Meteorology Club explained in a statement that a jet stream often brings Arctic air to the Northeast in the winter, but that this year’s polar vortex “is particularly intense and expansive” and has caused dangerously low wind chill temperatures in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Many Cornell students were feeling bitter about the prospect of trudging along icy sidewalks to class in subzero temperatures.
Max Springer ’19 said it was so cold on Wednesday that he skipped his morning lecture, choosing instead to stay in his Collegetown apartment until temperatures rose. He’s even more concerned about walking 20 minutes to class on Thursday.
Emily Hurwitz ’21 said she thought she was used to frigid temperatures, having grown up in Massachusetts. That was before she went toe-to-toe with the gusts blowing along Libe Slope.
“I ran down the slope almost in tears because the wind was making the inch of skin between my scarf and hat sting so much,” Hurwitz said. She added that she’s thankful for the free buses on Thursday but is worried they will be so crowded that people will be stuck at bus stops in the biting cold.
Dozens of students emailed Pollack and other Cornell administrators urging them to keep the University closed because of the threatening temperatures, and more than 9,000 people had signed a Change.org petition as of early on Thursday morning. Cornell last cancelled classes in March of 2018 in anticipation of heavy snow that fell short of projections.
Liz Davis-Frost ’20 said she emailed administrators in part because she is worried about parents who work hourly jobs at Cornell and still need to report to work despite their children’s schools being cancelled.
Davis-Frost said she thinks the administrators deciding whether to close the University, on the other hand, may not be as affected by the weather as students and staff members.
“People who work for Cornell and who have yearly salaries probably have a car and a parking spot on campus and don’t have to walk 25 minutes to class every day,” she said. “I’m wearing snow boots, two pairs of socks and I still can’t feel my toes.”
Everyone who emailed Pollack received a response from her chief of staff, Kelly Cunningham, saying that while students should be careful, “it is not necessary to close the university or cancel classes.” Cunningham encouraged students to follow “common-sense precautions” including allowing extra time for walking “in case you need to stop in a building to warm up.”
This is not the first time Pollack has come under fire for not stepping in to close a university. When she served as provost of the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor campus stayed open in January of 2014 despite a wind chill as low as minus 35 degrees. Pollack later acknowledged that the university didn’t have a process in place for shutting down.
“By the time it became clear that we were facing an extraordinary weather event, we realized that we didn’t have appropriate mechanisms to close the University even if we wanted to,” The Michigan Daily quoted Pollack as saying in 2014 after the university was criticized by faculty and staff.
Pollack said at the time that the University of Michigan would form a committee to evaluate how to cancel classes in inclement weather. Later that month, she shut the school because of a wind chill around minus 30.
Addy Aguilera said she still remembers cheering in a dining hall on that frosty Monday night when Pollack announced that the University of Michigan would close for the first time in 36 years.
“We felt like we were hopelessly waiting,” Aguilera, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2017, said in an interview. “And then we all got the same email at the same time and were like, Oh my God.”
“I’m kind of surprised that after the amount of backlash that [Pollack] got, that she would do the same thing at Cornell,” Aguilera said.
Burgess said extra technicians are staying on campus so that the University can be ready to fix burst pipes, broken heaters or respond to any other emergencies.
The Ithaca City School District and Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden cancelled all classes on Thursday. Ithaca College announced on Thursday morning that it would have a delayed opening, with classes beginning at 10:50 a.m.
Ithaca’s primary homeless shelter, St. John’s Community Services, said people needing a warm place to stay should go to the Tompkins County Department of Social Services at 320 West State St. during normal business hours and head directly to the shelter at 618 West State St. after hours or on weekends. The shelter can be reached at 607-354-8990.
Sarah Skinner ’21 contributed reporting to this article.