University calls for leniency on severe weather attendance

While e-mail notifications were sent out to USF residents and employees about the severe thunderstorm warning and tornado watch Tuesday night, commuters had to decide for themselves whether to venture out into the weather in pursuit of higher education.

Students who chose to take the risk may have missed the opportunity to take an excused absence from classes.

Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith sent an e-mail to faculty and staff Wednesday morning which stated, “In light of this unusual (for this time of the year) weather event and the related complications, we ask that you be sensitive to the plight of those students who had difficulty making it to classes scheduled during this time, especially in regards to the application of any attendance or exam make-up policies that you might have in effect.”

Smith said the thunderstorm hit the USF area from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, which is during the time when students are either beginning or finishing many evening classes.

“While the storm was similar to a number of the downpours that we experience in the Tampa Bay region during late Spring through early Fall, it occurred at a major commute time. I know that my travel time home was nearly tripled, and many of you may have had a similar experience,” he said in the e-mail. “Conversely, some of you may have had trouble getting onto campus because of the traffic. Further complicating matters, a tornado warning was issued for the northern part of Pinellas County and southern part of Hillsborough County, making people in those areas hesitant to venture out.”

Lara Wade, University spokeswoman, said the University made the decision to remain open after receiving a weather announcement from the National Weather Service at 4 p.m. The weather report at the time predicted severe thunderstorms and a tornado watch was issued until 9 p.m. that night.

“The only (tornado) warning was way north of us,” she said. “Since it was a watch and not a warning we didn’t send a MoBull alert (because) no immediate action was needed. There’s a difference between a watch and a warning … so we chose to not close the University.”

The University of Central Florida (UCF) chose otherwise.

At 4 p.m. UCF sent an alert notifying students and employees via text message that the institution would be closed for the duration of the storm.

UCF spokesman Chad Binette said in an e-mail, “University leaders made the decision to close our campuses with the safety of our students, staff and faculty in mind and after consulting with area emergency management officials. Weather predictions called for possible tornadoes on Tuesday evening along with severe thunderstorms and wind gusts exceeding 50 mph.”

When USF announced that they would remain open, the University website,, offered a list of safety tips if a tornado warning was issued, which included avoiding windows and staying away from power lines. Students in dorms were also encourage to remain indoors.

Wade said the University is sensitive to commuters and understands the situation they were put in, which prompted Smith’s e-mail.

“We don’t know where all the students are coming from,” she said. “If you (couldn’t) make it, you (couldn’t) make it.”