Gatepost Interview : Patricia Whitney – Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Capital Planning

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

The Facilities Department as a whole, obviously, has to continue to do work. I think what’s tough for people is there’s an emotional toll. Facilities people still have to come to work every day because we have students on campus, Sodexo is on campus, the Business Office is still operating, and IT still has people here. I have still been coming to campus. All the Facilities supervisors, for the most part, have still been coming into work because we just feel when our team members are here, that we need to be here to support them. I try to come in and support the team with what they need.

What is your role in keeping the University running?

Under normal circumstances, if a department wanted hand sanitizer or Lysol wipes, they would just go to one of our vendors. But with the shortage of supplies, regular offices just aren’t able to find supplies. One of the things Facilities has been doing is working with our larger vendors and trying to see how to get things. We’ve been able to secure extra hand sanitizer in bulk and extra disinfecting wipes. We recently were able to get some disposable masks. I spent a lot of time with a lot of different seamstresses, and went online, to get fabric masks. We play this support role and help wherever we can.

IT reached out to me this week asking if we could help build a plexiglass barricade because they’re still serving customers. They still have people coming in to get service on their computers, or a new computer comes in, or they have to address a problem. Even though their team has masks, not every customer comes in with a mask.

We normally do construction projects in the summer, but the governor’s order allows construction for the state to continue now. One of the things I continue to work on is keeping the projects going. It seems like a good time for it to continue because it has less impact on people. We have an electrical contractor working on campus. We’re getting ready to start doing some minor work in the library. We’re doing some repairs to the handicap ramp on the backside of McCarthy. We’re putting in some additional handicap buttons on some doors. We’re getting ready to start the next stage of the Crocker Hall renovation. We’re doing some electrical work in O’Connor.

What’s really tricky, though, is that if you look at a building, it may look like hardly anybody is there. But in order for remote desktop programs to work, the computer in your office has to be on. One of the electrical contractors said, “Nobody’s in this building – why can’t I shut down the electricity?” And we said you can’t because the faculty members are teaching and their computers are on.

Do you have more work than you normally do?

It’s about the same, maybe down slightly, just because there are so few people on campus. But some of the work is more urgent that we’re doing, like cleaning the buildings where people are working. That’s more urgent. We’re cleaning West Hall where students are still residing. We’re trying to do extra disinfecting and cleaning in the buildings – like McCarthy or Dwight Hall, or the library – where we have people working. We do extra cleaning of touch surfaces there. In any place where people are coming in and out, we just give it extra attention. Our maintenance people are still doing their rounds every day, checking to make sure the mechanical systems are operating properly. The people in the power plants are still operating the boilers to make sure the campus has heat and hot water. It’s harder to do your work when you’re wearing masks and taking extra precautions, but that’s what they’re doing.

It doesn’t feel like the workload has tremendously decreased for us because we’re still trying to clean residence halls where students have moved out. We’re continuing to work on getting the residence halls cleaned up to be ready for fall. We’re still hoping to have students back on campus in the fall, but that final decision is going to be up to executive staff.

If there’s a lab in Hemenway, for example, that isn’t being used – we would clean that. We had labels made so if we have classrooms or labs that we don’t think are being used, we go in and clean them, and then the maintainer puts this label on the door that says, “This room has been cleaned. We don’t anticipate people using it, but if for some reason you use it, call our office so we can come back and re-clean it.”

Have you faced any major challenges in the past few weeks or months?

I think one of the greatest challenges we have as managers is to make sure our employees are safe and they feel as safe as they can be. We did a lot of training with them. We had it set up with 25 people per room, and the night before the training was when the governor said only 10 people could be in a room. We have about 80 facilities employees, so we did eight different training sessions. And as the CDC provided changed guidelines, we had some additional training. We wanted to be able to answer questions, and not all our employees have computers readily available, so we couldn’t just have a Zoom meeting.

Some of our employees who don’t have computers have to sign in and out manually. We mark out six feet for social distancing. We make sure there are gloves. Because we don’t want them all using the same pen, we created two boxes of pens: clean pens and dirty pens. After people use a pen, they throw it in the dirty box. After they all sign in, someone goes through with a disinfecting wipe and wipes down all the pens and puts them back in the clean box.

I am incredibly proud of the workers we have in Facilities, and their willingness to continue to come to work and keep the campus safe.

What advice do you have for students?

The responsibility for staying safe really falls to each individual. We can give you guidance, and we give people masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and wipes. But if they take them off when they go to lunch and go sit two feet away from somebody, I can’t control that as a supervisor. It’s really their responsibility to do that. And I think the same thing is true with students. The best thing they can do is follow the CDC guidance.

There are people who may have an elderly parent or a parent who’s ill. We have employees who are more cautious because they may have a spouse who’s elderly. But my advice to faculty, staff, students, and anybody during this time is to just keep in mind that you have the responsibility to do what feels safe for you. Listen to the guidance and take precautions that are recommended.

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