By Renata D’Aliesio
Snowflakes began falling around noon last Thursday, just as forecasters had predicted. Ryerson decided to close within the next hour so that students, faculty and staff could get home before the city’s latest storm hit. The school’s vice presidents — Linda Grayson, Dennis Mock and Michael Dewson — had been following the forecasts closely since Wednesday morning. Twenty-one centimetres had fallen Tuesday night, crippling Toronto’s transit system. And another 15 to 25 centimetres was expected to blanket the city by Friday morning. Ryerson, who had been playing a wait-and-see-game for two days, couldn’t afford to stall any longer. As the snow intensified by late afternoon and early evening, Grayson, Mock and Dewson exchanged phone calls from home, trying to decide whether they would ask president Claude Lajeunesse to keep the school closed. Just after 9 p.m. Thursday a decision was made — Ryerson’s doors, for the first time ever, would remain locked for an entire day.
But the impending doom and chaos never materialized. Yes, we did get the expected snowfall, but after a two-week period in which the city broke a 128-year-old snowfall record for January, Friday’s storm seemed more like a winter wonderland than a winter nightmare.
But Grayson, v.p. administration and student affairs, believes the school’s decision to remain closed on Friday was the correct call.
“You may sometimes wish you made the opposite decision, but we’re quite happy with the decision, but we’re quite happy with the decisions we made,” said Grayson. “You make the best possible call, but you can never make a perfect decision.”
While the school’s Friday closure isn’t being criticized by students, its decision to remain open Wednesday and part of Thursday, even as commuter chaos stories crackled over radios and television, has some students puzzled. Why would a commuter school attempt to stay open when the city’s subways system was almost completely shut down? The Toronto Transit Commission subway lines were so clogged with snow and ice that parts of the system was knocked out for five days. On Wednesday, TTC general manager David Gunn gave out advice to people planning to use the subway the next day: “Stay home.”
But because Ryerson did not announce closures Wednesday and Thursday morning, many students decided to make the trek down, which in some cases took up to four hours longer than normal, only to find their classes had been cancelled.
That’s what happened to first-year journalism graduate student Donald Barrie. He was so determined to make it to his Wednesday morning class, he decided to brave the snow-covered sidewalks in his motorized wheelchair.
“I took a risk,” he said. “It was very terrible and dangerous getting down here. The sidewalks were covered in snow and slush, and I got stuck a few times. On sidewalks that were really bad, I went on the road against the curb.”
Despite the poor conditions, Barrie managed to arrive 10 minutes early for class only to find it had been cancelled because his professor couldn’t make it in. Disgruntled, he headed back onto the treacherous sidewalks and streets and made his way home.
While Grayson admits that many professors and students weren’t able to make it to school on Wednesday and Thursday, she says Ryerson’s weather policy calls for a day-to-day assessment. Friday’s closure is the first time administration has decided the night before to shut down the school for the next day. The last time the school was closed for the day, the decision was not made until 8:30 a.m. because then-president Walter Pitman wanted to see the conditions, before declaring the school closed. That was in 1977.
The Toronto Star’s headline that day read: “Winter’s knock-out punch.” In two days, 29 centimetres of snow fell, and gusts of 80 km/h caused drifts of up to one metre deep. Back then, it was one of the worst blizzards in decades, but the chaos it created in no way measures up to the storms of 1999.
In 1977, TTC delayed services from 30 to 60 minutes, whereas last week, significant portions of this subway lines weren’t running because snow and ice covered the subway’s third rail, cutting off power supply to the trains.
In 1977, GO Trains reported most trains were running 30 to 45 minutes late. Last week, frozen rail switches left thousands of commuters stuck for hours on GO trains. And this past weekend, GO shut down its train services for the first time ever because of the weather.
Though on Thursday the v.p.s decided to close on Saturday as well, they changed their minds Saturday morning and reopened most weekend services.
“People bent over backwards to make sure students needs were met,” Grayson said. “One staff member in financial aid stayed later [Thursday] in case students appeared 1 p.m. for emergency loan services.”
With files from Jessica Aldred