Without a playbook, the Bucknell community stepped up to solve problems of testing, tracing and much more
illustration by gwen keraval
the COVID pivot
Without a playbook, the Bucknell community stepped up to solve problems of testing, tracing and much more
illustration by gwen keraval
Image of the letter A
Higher ed has never been known for its rapid response to oncoming challenges. Problems are studied, discussed, studied and discussed … again and again. Finally, decisions are made, usually incrementally.
But life during COVID-19 ramped up the usual deliberative process. Last spring, colleges and universities across the country were in panic mode. Shut things down rather than solve the gnarly problems of contact tracing and testing? Throw wide the doors and hope for the best? Or make a plan to reopen for the fall in a way that maximized safety?

For Bucknell, the path was clear, even though there were many thickets to navigate before moving forward. Bucknell’s care and precautions put the University in a select group nationwide. An NPR analysis in October of 1,400 colleges showed that two out of three colleges with in-person classes had no clear testing plan or were testing only students at risk for a positive result. Bucknell was in the minority category.

With few outside resources to rely on, solutions not only had to meet the highest safety standards but also be executed as cost-effectively as possible. Robust testing, signage and PPE for the academic year came with a $12 million price tag, but relying on homegrown talent rather than hiring outside experts to run testing, contact tracing and other programs tamped down expenses and kept the Bucknell labor force intact.

We reported in our summer and fall issues about how the faculty has stepped up heroically to deliver on the Bucknell promise for our students. The following stories demonstrate how Bucknell staff who operate behind the scenes have applied creativity, care and in-house expertise to what Pierre Joanis, vice president for human resources, calls “a multidimensional challenge that has not happened in over 100 years. Our people are rising to the challenge in very strong, very meaningful, very deliberate ways, and they are doing it selflessly, without thinking about how exhausted they are or how little recognition they will get, at a time when there have been no wage increases for folks. Yet here they are, stepping out and learning to work in different ways and doing new things that they’ve never had to do before. Without a playbook.”

Sherri Kimmel

Community Safeguards
Staff sought ways to make isolated students as comfortable as possible
by Matt Hughes
For the student, the situation was already stressful. She’d come down with symptoms resembling COVID-19, and had just been informed by a member of Bucknell’s Contact Tracing Team that she’d be moving to isolation housing. And now here was Bucknell’s chief of public safety at her door, dressed up like a moon man in goggles, gloves, gown and N95 mask, come to transport her to the room where she’d be confined as she awaited her test results.

But then the chief, Steve Barilar, learned something that made it worse: Tomorrow was her birthday. Making things as stress-free as possible is always priority one when Barilar or his officers move students to isolation housing, but in this case, he knew something extra was in order.

The next morning the student awoke to an email from Jackie Cetera, director of residential education, asking her to open the door to her room. Waiting on the doorstep was a gift basket filled with skin-care products (“like a miniature spa day,” Cetera says), along with birthday balloons and a bamboo plant to help the isolation room feel a little more like home.

A Flood of Information
Staff led on testing, tracing and public service
by Sherri Kimmel
In the nearly five decades that Cindy Bilger has worked at Bucknell, she’s seen the devastation the ’72 flood wrought in the Lewisburg community and on campus, where some student housing was submerged. She’s worked through massive changes in systems used for data collecting and reporting and even helped prepare for the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was not as severe as predicted. But she’s never seen anything like COVID-19. As director of benefits, she added to her HR skillset by developing a massive employee testing program.

“Dana Mims [Events Management], Jeff Loss [Facilities] and Steve Barilar [Public Safety] all stepped up to support this,” she says. In a matter of days, “We were able to have a tent set up, tables and a refrigerator — a whole remote testing site.”

Employees were divided into four groups based on contact with the campus community, with all working on campus tested at least once and as frequently as every two weeks for high-contact workers, including faculty.

The Art of Space Shifting
Welcoming future students, serving current ones took creative thinking
by Bryan Wendell and Sherri Kimmel
You can scroll through photo galleries, click through virtual tours and sit through Zooms. But no digital experience can truly replicate the feeling you get when standing on the Quad or strolling through the Grove. You have to be there.

In late June, after three months of exclusively virtual admissions experiences, Bucknell resumed in-person visits for prospective students and their families.

With the start of the fall semester still two months away, other campus offices had more time to design reopening plans. The Office of Admissions did not.

While most colleges remained closed to visitors, Dean of Admissions Kevin Mathes ’07 led the effort to open Bucknell while keeping visitors and the admissions team safe and healthy.

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.”

First Impressions
Staff volunteers from across campus welcomed families
during move-in week
by Bryan Wendell
It rained on move-in day in 1999, but that didn’t cloud the warm welcome Richard Alexander ’03 received as he arrived at Roberts Hall. He was greeted by a swarm of spirited students eager to carry his stuff up three flights of stairs.

Twenty-one years later, on this fall’s move-in day, the rain was absent but so were the helpers. Because of the pandemic, each student could select just one family member to help carry belongings inside.

The changes didn’t end there. Face coverings were mandatory. Move-in day became move-in week with students registering in two-hour windows spread across five days. And before receiving a room key, students were required to provide proof of two successive negative COVID-19 tests.

Not Forsaking Fun
New approaches to student activities foster community connections
by Brooke Thames
Among the health and safety terms that permeated students’ daily lives on campus this fall, there was one three- letter word that Bucknell staff worked to make even more ubiquitous: fun.

“You could look at this situation a million different ways, but many of us have chosen to see it as a chance to find exciting, new ideas to keep students engaged and supported,” says Sabrina Shankar, assistant director of student activities.

Shankar oversees Bucknell’s 7th Street Studio & Makerspace, a hub for extracurricular arts that was one of many on-campus spaces challenged to reimagine its events and activities. Rather than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder making crafts with community art supplies, students used individually packaged materials at outdoor pop-up sessions and weekend night events. Crafts ranged from simple pleasures, such as mug painting and bullet journaling, to laser-cutting Bucknell- themed door decor.

On the Food Front
Shifts in dining practices required diligent teamwork
by Brooke Thames
It felt like being suddenly blindfolded while driving. That’s how Resident Dining General Manager Jay Breeding describes the moment he realized operations at Bucknell’s seven on-campus eateries would need a major overhaul to support fall reopening amid the pandemic.

But that initial panic didn’t last long. When faced with charting a roadmap through unprecedented territory, Breeding was quick to respond with an unwavering resolve to “make it happen — fast.”

“Since dining locations were going to be some of the only large gathering spaces left, we knew we had to get it exactly right,” he says. “There’d be no days where we could relax, no such thing as ‘close enough.’ Because if we messed up … well, there wasn’t room for messing up.”