UPDATE: UI calls off Wednesday classes


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UPDATE, 9:22 a.m.:

URBANA — The University of Illinois announced this morning that classes on the Urbana campus will be canceled from 6 p.m. today through Wednesday because of the extreme weather.

In a message to campus, Chancellor Robert Jones said the historic low temperatures, ranging from minus-7 to minus-20, coupled with dangerous wind chills of minus-40 or below will create hazardous conditions.

"The safety and well-being of our campus community members is our highest priority," Jones said.

The campus won't be completely closed. Residence and dining halls, recreation centers, the Illini Union, the library and all academic buildings will remain open, so staff members are expected to report to their offices, Jones said.

Employees who feel they need to leave early or can't get to campus can use vacation or personal leave as applicable, he said.

At midday, the UI's campuses in Springfield and Chicago decided to cancel classes Tuesday evening and Wednesday as well, with UIC classes not resuming until noon Thursday.

The University of Illinois Hospital and Clinics and its Mile Square Health Center locations will continue to operate as usual.

Nonessental workers in Chicago are asked not to report to campus until around noon Wednesday and Thursday. Employees working in essential areas are expected to work as usual, including public safety, patient care or hospital operations, residence halls or designated research facilities.

"The residential, health care and research aspects of UIC operations make it impossible to close the entire campus," the UIC announcement said.

In Springfield, classes are canceled from 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Wednesday. The campus will remain open, but liberal leave policies will be in effect for employees, officials said.

The Performing Arts Center's Broadway performance of "Rent" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday is still scheduled to go on.

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Original story, published 7 a.m. Tuesday:

URBANA — As of midafternoon Monday, a change.org petition urging Chancellor Robert Jones to cancel classes at the University of Illinois on Wednesday had about 170 signatures.

By 7:15 p.m., it reached its initial goal of 7,500 names — and counting.

With Wednesday's forecast calling for a high of -8 degrees, a low of -15 and windchills of -35 or below, students were in hunker-down mode.

"Most students get to class by walking, and even just a 10-minute walk in that weather puts students at a risk of frostbite if they aren't dressed appropriately," wrote petition author Peter Kiley.

UI officials said the chancellor would make the call by 10 p.m. today at the latest, after assessing the latest forecast and other factors.

"We're monitoring the weather," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Monday evening. "We're meeting to see what issues there are, what challenges there are, and we'll talk with local emergency services folks to see what their advice is.

"If the students vote, apparently it will be 'Cancel classes,'" she said, "which I think is usually what would happen if you ever had students vote on whether to have classes on any given day."

The UI's other two campuses in Chicago and Springfield were also monitoring conditions Monday, said UI spokesman Tom Hardy.

The UI Board of Trustees decided to consolidate its two-day meeting in Chicago into one because of the frigid forecast. Two committee meetings originally scheduled for Wednesday were canceled, and the Academic and Student Affairs Committee will meet Thursday instead, just before the board's regular business meeting, Hardy said.

The Urbana campus has canceled classes only a few times in recent decades — most recently in 2013, after a 12-inch snowfall.

In January 2014, former Chancellor Phyllis Wise was attacked with vulgar and in some cases racist and sexist messages on social media when she opted not to cancel classes during a cold spell.

Would a -35 wind chill do the trick this time?

"I think it depends," Kaler said. "Can we keep the campus safe? Can we make sure students get safely to and from classes?"

If the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District decides not to run its buses, for example, "that would be a new factor," she said.

History Professor Mark Steinberg said students were asking if he planned to cancel class Wednesday, and at least one parent contacted him to say her child would not be there.

Kaler said a parent called her a few years back during a bitterly cold spell and was upset that her daughter had a 20-minute walk from her residence hall in the "six pack" to a class on north campus. Kaler pointed out that the campus has a free bus service, and students can also step inside buildings to warm up as they walk across campus.

"It's not that you're walking across the prairie for miles and miles," she said. "There are places you can step inside if you get cold. We assume people come to the university with proper winter gear because we are in the Midwest."

In his petition, Kiley said some professors are already talking about canceling their Wednesday classes, and he had heard from "multiple students" who had decided not to go regardless.

"To not cancel class would be flat-out dangerous," he said. If classes go on as scheduled, he said, the campus should add more buses to the popular routes "as they will be extremely overcrowded."

Around the state, at least three other universities announced that they would close Wednesday because of the extreme cold.

Illinois State University in Normal will be closed from 11 p.m. today until 9:30 a.m. Thursday, except for residence halls and essential services.

Similarly, Bradley University in Peoria plans to close at 10 p.m. today and resume regular and operations Thursday morning, after winds die down. And Northern Illinois University in DeKalb will close from 10 p.m. today until 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Through the years

The UI has canceled classes only a handful of times in recent decades:

Feb. 13-14, 2007: UI students get their first snow days since 1979 as a blizzard drops 10 to 15 inches of snow on the area. Local schools are closed for three days.

Feb. 2, 2011: A winter storm with freezing rain, high winds and almost 7 inches of snow cancels classes, though the campus remains open. Other area colleges, universities, schools, banks, businesses and health clinics are also closed.

March 25, 2013: One of the heaviest late-season snowfalls on record (almost 12 inches) cancels classes at the university and Parkland College.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).