Focus on Facilities
Prepping for campus return took massive planning and DIY efforts
by Matt Hughes
When Bucknell sent students home in March in anticipation of a nationwide wave of COVID-19 cases, little was known about the virus or the best ways to mitigate risks while maintaining something like a functioning, “normal” society.

For Buckell’s Facilities division, however, a few things were absolutely certain: Students, faculty and staff would return, and allowing them to do so safely required preparations on a scale none had encountered before.

“By April, there was already a sense that we were coming back,” says Deb Smith, an operations area manager who oversees nearly 40 custodial staff. “We’re a school that has in-person classes; we’re not an online school, and we don’t necessarily want to be one. That was a really important principle through the whole process.”

Following that initial recognition, planning to transform Bucknell’s campus for maximum safety started almost immediately. The process was formidable not just in its scope, but because so little was then known about the virus.

“One of the biggest challenges was staying awake and watching the news,” says Gary Snyder, another area manager. “Sometimes we’d make a plan on Tuesday and by Thursday things would change, and we’d have to come up with a different plan.”

Much of the ground-level work fell to the custodial staff overseen by Smith, Snyder and Area Manager Mary Schramm. Working with Communications, they hung more than 10,000 signs promoting health and safety measures around campus, everywhere from walls and columns to outdoor sidewalks. In every classroom and common space they rearranged furniture to provide a minimum six-foot distance, while trades technicians and maintenance assistants installed hundreds of hand-sanitizing stations. Calling it a workout wouldn’t do it justice.

Greg Koontz, associate director for utilities maintenance, meanwhile, was poring over blueprints of the campus’ 100-plus buildings, devising changes to provide as much fresh air in shared spaces as possible. By May, he also turned attention to upgrading HVAC filters to a higher standard than the CDC recommended.

Here, as in many cases, early action paid off, as high demand meant a 12- to 20-week wait time before filters could be shipped. Koontz’s planning enabled installation before students arrived in August.

In other cases, the DIY approach made most sense. With everywhere from grocery stores to amusement parks needing to drastically increase queuing space, equipment to define those spaces was suddenly in short supply. Bucknell turned to Dan Raup, carpenter supervisor, for help expanding its own waiting areas.

Finding long order delays for prefabricated stanchions to hold queue ropes, Raup drew up designs for a post with loops on a base and sent it to a local welding shop. Within a few weeks, some 250 were ready for installation.

Raup’s carpenters also spent much of their summer creatively devising other safety solutions. Among them: more than 100 plastic barriers for desks and checkout stations in high-traffic areas that carpenter Gary Kahler built in just a few weeks.

“We prioritized requests based on how necessary they were for bringing students back on campus,” Raup says. “Once we had the basic design, it was off to the races.”

Safety precautions went beyond bricks and mortar as Facilities took the lead in sourcing and deploying personal protective equipment for the Bucknell community. Warehouse Supervisor Denny Wagner led the charge.

In the first week of classes, he distributed 1,380 paper surgical masks, 546 bottles of hand sanitizer, 780 pairs of gloves and around 300 face shields. By late September, mask distribution had grown to 20,000, with another 20,000 in stockpile. Keeping up with the staggering demand meant getting organized quickly.

“I was getting 30 or 40 emails a day from people needing PPE,” Wagner says. “It was challenging to keep up.”

For help, he turned to Facilities Office Assistant Megan Leavy, who assembled a list of roughly 100 department contacts who would place weekly orders for their areas. Leavy now compiles orders every Friday so that Wagner and his team can prepare for distribution the following week.

Midway through the semester, equipment distributions and enhanced cleaning procedures were working like a well-oiled machine, allowing students to live and study on campus. But while the preparations played a great role in making the campus reopening possible, they only account for half the story.

“We can put out as many bottles of hand sanitizer as we can get, put signs everywhere, but if our students are not doing what they should be doing, then it’s really never going to be enough,” says Schramm, the operations area manager. “Personally, I think our students have taken this very seriously and shown that yes, they do want to be here.”