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Monday, December 11, 2023

Academics & Research

School closures after storms cost more than just money

When bad weather hits and forces closures, the University loses not only money but class time that trickles down to the students and professors. Luckily, Genesis Guerrero Gutiérrez, a professor in the Hispanic Studies Department, does not have to change her syllabus by taking into account Martin Luther King Jr. Day. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

One three credit hour course typically costs $1,108, but that price tag doesn’t account for all the intangible things students lose when they can’t go to class or what professors have to do when their syllabuses start changing — such as after an ice storm or a hurricane. 

The experience for all 45,364 students varies based on the courses they’re taking, their classifications and how comfortable their professors are in rearranging content.

What doesn’t vary is the loss of tuition money those students paid for which they don’t get a return.

Management information systems senior Alzeb Manasia said that when students pay for courses that are canceled, the school should take further action. 

“They should reimburse students,” Manasia said.

The University also loses money when it shuts down. According to the fiscal year 2017 budget, the most recent available on the Department of Administration and Finance website, UH spends about $4.4 million per day. When a closure occurs, it affects the school’s ability to pay for major priorities relating to student access and success — new faculty, UHin4 and recreation and wellness, among others.

In the event that the shutdown interferes with the start of the semester, students are left waiting with nothing to do.

Manasia said the delays for spring classes left him feeling forced to do more things in a smaller amount of time to catch up.

“Even if they teach you (what’s on the syllabus), it’s not good if you don’t understand it,” Manasia said.

Manasia said he typically has a balanced course load, so he doesn’t feel much pressure when syllabuses start changing.

Severe weather events have led to the postponing of the start of the school year for two semesters in a row. Those lost school days have cost students and professors valuable class time.

The winter storm last week shut down UH for two days, while Hurricane Harvey shut down campus for a little over a week.

Genesis Guerrero Gutiérrez, a professor in the Hispanic Studies Department, said she has no plans to change her syllabus for Elementary Spanish this semester because the first week was already shortened by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I’d be lying if I said I’m not behind on the calendar,” Guerrero Gutiérrez said. “I’m sure I can catch up fast, so I’m not worried about it.”

Guerrero Gutiérrez emphasized the need to be flexible and have empathy for students and their safety concerns.

“I’m convinced that taking care of yourself and the ones you love takes a lot of time, especially during natural disasters,” Guerrero Gutiérrez said.

But last semester, when the threat of Harvey felt real, her department asked instructors to remove an entire chapter from their syllabuses.

“This was tricky to organize because there are lots of teachers, and we all needed to have the same syllabus,” Guerrero Gutiérrez said. “That’s how we make sure all the students finish their Spanish lessons having the same level possible.”

Guerrero Gutiérrez said it’s important to go the extra mile when accommodating her students. She rearranged homework, sociocultural assignments and compositions but knew that wasn’t enough.

“I realized that students needed more than that,” Guerrero Gutiérrez.  “Some of them had lost everything during the storm, and I could not ask them to be focused on learning Spanish if their basic needs were at stake.”

Guerrero Gutiérrez considers last semester a success, even though it began under less than desirable circumstances. She had no failing grades in her course and believes her students felt good about what was done for their success.

“I was determined to make deals with those students who were in a bad situation,” Guerrero Gutiérrez said. “I wanted them not just to complete tasks quickly; I wanted them to learn.”

Assistant professor of political science Alin Fumurescu teaches a Tuesday and Thursday section of Foundations in American Political Thought. Since only his Tuesday class was canceled due to the cold snap, Fumurescu said this syllabus and his others were not heavily affected.

“Usually, if there is only one day of class cancellation due to weather conditions, I struggle to fit all the material in the remaining lectures,” Fumurescu said.

In situations where he can’t teach a class, Fumurescu said he manages to fit the missed content in where he can because the information in his course builds on prior sections. 

Sometimes there’s nothing that can be done when too much time is missed due to disasters, so instructors have to push forward.

“If there are several days of cancellation, as with Harvey,” Fumurescu said, “I’m forced to drop some of the material I was planning on covering for that class.”

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