University staff work 24/7 to support on-campus community during coronavirus pandemic

Wednesday, Apr 8, 2020
by Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

From providing critical medical care to baking a birthday cupcake, Princeton staff members are dedicated to helping students who remain on campus during COVID-19.

“I’m in awe of the courage and resolve of our on-site, frontline medical and administrative staff: they do not flinch when it matters and work tirelessly to maintain our critical operations. These people inspire.” — John Kolligian, executive director, University Health Services

“I am proud to work with the Department of Public Safety staff, especially in these unprecedented times. They are some of the unrecognized heroes of this pandemic.” — Paul Ominsky, assistant vice president, Public Safety “To my staff: You inspire me each and every day.” — Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president, Campus Dining “The ‘hours of the workday’ don’t apply … [and] small gestures demonstrate the care and concern the staff show to the students and wider University community.” — Dorian Johnson, director of housing, Housing and Real Estate Services

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Princeton campus might look like a ghost town in the bloom of springtime. But in fact, hundreds of essential staff members are practicing social distancing while working around the clock to support the on-campus community, and hundreds of other staff members are working from home to provide support.

The staff are taking care of an on-campus student community of approximately 380 undergraduates approved to remain on campus, and approximately 1,200 graduate students whose primary residence is on campus.

From broad-based efforts — such as providing COVID-19 testing to students on campus and maintaining safe, clean dormitories — to the tiniest details — like a birthday cupcake baked by Campus Dining and delivered to the room of a student in isolation — staff members are working diligently and creatively to ensure the health, safety and well-being of the campus community. Their work is in addition to the faculty and academic staff who are leading the University’s virtual instruction program for students who are on and off campus.

Highlighted below are some of the many ways staff are supporting students remaining on campus.

Health and safety: ‘These dedicated people show up and live our values’

University Health Services (UHS) staff members are working on campus and remotely to support the health and well-being of the campus community. This work includes:

Providing the University’s senior leadership with public health and infectious disease expertise. Performing essential services delegated by the local public health authority for University community members: contact tracing; providing guidance to students in quarantine and isolation; providing COVID-19 testing to students remaining on campus; and providing care to those awaiting results or in quarantine or isolation, as well as follow-up treatment and consultation, where needed. Providing mental health services remotely during an intense and traumatic time for students. Communicating with students regarding physical and emotional health. Providing on-site medical and remote medical services to assess and treat non-COVID-19 medical problems for students.

Dr. Irini Daskalaki, the University’s inaugural infectious disease physician and coordinator of UHS’s Global and Community Health program, works in concert with many departments and offices across campus and is providing special expertise and support to many offices during the pandemic.  

John Kolligian, executive director of University Health Services, said: “I am proud of how all who work at UHS are responding to COVID-19, how these dedicated people show up and live our values. I appreciate their strength and adaptability. And I’m in awe of the courage and resolve of our on-site, frontline medical and administrative staff: they do not flinch when it matters and work tirelessly to maintain our critical operations. These people inspire. I regret that no one has had time to decompress and find anything close to relief. But that will come. For now, we rely on one another’s resilience, patience, kindness and expertise more than ever.”

Kolligian also noted UHS’ transition to virtual services to support students on and off campus, in particular students’ mental health.

“Our students’ mental health is of great concern: they are on ‘uncertainty overload.’ Many students express heightened loneliness (and of course, isolation), as well as anger, bewilderment and grief at the loss of their communities,” he said. “They are worried about their health and the health of their families and friends. The irony is palpable: the social distancing that is essential for maintaining physical health deprives them of peer connections that support their mental health.”   Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), Health Promotion and Prevention Services, and Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) have all transitioned to virtual sessions for urgent care, counseling and case management. CPS also offers an array of online outreach support, workshops and groups, from anxiety management and meditation to group sessions for student-athletes reckoning with the loss of a season.  

Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) staff members rotate working on campus so they can take turns managing workplace safety issues, and visiting every laboratory and managing laboratory safety issues (including hazardous and medical waste management). 

 Some of the services EHS is providing during the pandemic include:

Supporting and promoting public health initiatives — working with departments and offices across campus to create protocols for essential issues like quarantine, isolation, transportation of sick students, responding to emergencies and urgent needs in isolation areas. Training and consultation with all essential services staff who continue to work on campus to ensure that they are able to work safely. Managing the inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for health care workers on campus and other workers (Facilities, University Services, Public Safety and others) who are supporting students or facilities for students who are in quarantine or isolation. Fit-testing and training everyone who needs to wear an N95 mask or other device for respiratory protection. Walking through all research facilities to ensure that only essential research is going on and to identify and mitigate problems. Organizing a centralized process for collecting donations of PPE from laboratories, campus donors, alumni and others, which started even before the New Jersey Governor’s executive order. Working with every department to update their Continuity of Operations Plans. Reviewing and updating University emergency preparedness plans and documenting the University’s response, including lessons learned.

“I am very proud of my staff and deeply appreciative of all that they have accomplished,” said Robin Izzo, executive director of EHS. “Every one of them has stepped into roles and taken on responsibilities that they never considered, and did so willingly, looking for ways to support the efforts to keep our community safe. Several of them have been working seven days a week since late January and more than a month later, still do not back away from a new challenge.”

She added: “We are all dedicated to public health and the ideal that everyone goes home as healthy and safe as when they arrived. That is our unofficial motto: EHS Everyone Home Safely.”

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has the majority of its staff members in essential roles on campus, including University police officers, security officers and dispatchers.

Their work, provided 24/7, includes:

Transporting students who need to be tested for COVID-19 to UHS and to isolation and quarantine housing locations on campus. Patrolling the campus and responding to emergencies to keep the community safe. Answering 911 calls, monitoring alarms and making access cards for people locked out of buildings.

“Every day I am impressed and proud of the community caretaking work the men and women of DPS do to keep our campus safe and secure,” said Paul Ominsky, assistant vice president, Public Safety. “Although our police, dispatchers and security officers worry about their families and whether or not they will catch the virus, they come to work each day without complaint to do their jobs as essential personnel.”

He added: “I am proud to work with the DPS staff, especially in these unprecedented times. They are some of the unrecognized heroes of this pandemic.”

Residential life: ‘Working tirelessly to support our students’

The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) staff provide support, community and connection for all undergraduate students.

“The COVID-19 crisis has left many students (both on and off campus) feeling anxious, isolated, unsettled and struggling to manage these new circumstances while trying to focus on their academic work,” said Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students. The work of the ODUS staff members includes:

Directors of student life (DSLs) and their colleagues in the Office of the Dean of the College (deans and directors of studies) continue to connect daily with all students through email, Zoom or Skype on academic, personal, family, health and well-being issues. DSLs are working closely with residential college advisers (RCAs) to maintain connection with first-year advisees. They are also reaching out to members of their colleges through social media, newsletters and other communications to support online programming, in particular around health and well-being. Prior to students leaving campus, the ODUS Student Engagement Team (led by Tom Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students) sprang into action between March 13-19 to locate boxes and deliver packing supplies, distributing over 10,000 boxes to students in Dillon Gym. They were aided in this effort by a number of resident graduate students (RGSs) from the residential colleges. ODUS staff are continuing to facilitate numerous student community-building activities through facilitated Zoom meetings with class officers, the USG and the Leadership Council. Support continues for students who must be in quarantine or isolation or who are required to re-locate in order to free certain dormitory space to support COVID-19 response and mitigation.

“This is a wonderfully dedicated group of people who, under normal circumstances, work tirelessly to support our students and enrich the environment in which they live, learn and grow,” Deignan said. “However, a crisis like the one we are facing certainly reveals the depth of their commitment! I am enormously grateful to them — those who are in student-facing positions and those who are behind the scenes — and I am honored to work among them.” Graduate School staff members serve the graduate student community, most of whom remain on campus, in many ways. Their work includes:

Providing support, guidance and resources to graduate students as they navigate the challenges presented by this pandemic. Ensuring graduate students have the academic resources needed to continue to make regular academic progress. Creating virtual opportunities for connection, support and community through this difficult time. The Student Life team at the Graduate School offers community-building virtual programming and support for 70+ graduate student organizations in their virtual programming initiatives, including programming during Graduate Student Appreciation Week, April 6-10. Virtual events are posted on the Graduate School events calendar. Ensuring that graduate students’ financial support is continued and addressing emerging financial concerns. Providing regular communication channels and updates to deliver important information and respond to student questions and concerns, including a weekly email from Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie. Working closely with the Graduate Student Government to share information and respond to inquiries.

“We are so grateful to all the staff members in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School for everything they are doing to keep our graduate students safe, supported, connected and cared for during this incredibly challenging time,” said Lisa Schreyer, associate dean for student life at the Graduate School.

Dining, Housing and Facilities: ‘I remain in awe of all your collective efforts’

Campus Dining provides meals for the students who remain on campus, including students in isolation or quarantine who require meal delivery. It continually optimizes its operations to reduce the number of staff members who have to work on campus. Other staff work remotely to assist with functions such as payroll, accounting, food orders, deliveries and more. The work of Campus Dining staff includes:

Providing meals for undergraduate students on campus who are in dorms, and graduate students who reside at the Graduate College. Food and care baskets for students in self-isolation. Providing meals for students with special dietary needs. Staffing at Witherspoon Café at Frist, which is open daily including weekends for students, faculty and essential staff on campus. Supporting essential staff in campus departments when they need meals. Outreach to suppliers to ensure enough product is on hand for the Campus Dining team to prepare the foods. Arranging staff training by EHS to ensure safe practices. Internal communications to keep all departments within Campus Dining informed. Care.Connection.Community — a new online newsletter for all students that includes favorite recipes and inspiring messages from Campus Dining staff members.

“To my staff: I remain in awe of all your collective efforts and remain deeply grateful for your collegiality,” said Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president, Campus Dining. “As I have seen you during my walk-throughs you inspire me each and every day. During these challenging times, to be part of this team so that we can support our community and each other through our care is heartwarming.”

Housing and Real Estate Services (HRES) staff members from department teams in operations, occupancy management and engagement support undergraduate and graduate students remaining on campus.

“One of the team leaders noted that throughout this time our teams have shown that the ‘hours of the workday’ don’t apply,” said Dorian Johnson, director of housing. “They are often answering inquiries, monitoring situations, and responding to needs that arise well into the evenings and through the weekends.”

He shared an anecdote about several instances when students have needed to begin self-quarantine/isolation in the evening after dinner has been delivered by the area coordinators. In these instances, a manager from the operations team will order a pizza for the student, have the pizza delivered to the on-call area coordinator, who in turn delivers the pizza to the student’s door.

“These small gestures demonstrate the care and concern the staff have shown and continue to show to the students and wider University community throughout this COVID-19 response period,” Johnson said.

In addition to the typically busy spring period as the team supports the annual undergraduate and graduate room selection processes and manages inquiries from incoming undergraduate and graduate students, the Housing staffers’ work during the pandemic includes:

Six area coordinators have delivered close to 2,000 meals/boxes of groceries to self-quarantining/isolating undergraduate and graduate students since the initial travel restrictions were implemented on Jan. 31. The team also delivers thermometers, medicines and other items that students need/request. In collaboration with EHS, UHS, Campus Dining and Facilities, identifying and preparing spaces for student quarantine/isolation. In collaboration with Campus Life and college staffs, facilitating moves to proactively prepare areas that can be used for student self-isolation and for potential other uses in the future. In collaboration with Student Agencies, coordinating the retrieval of student belongings from their rooms by external moving and storage vendors. Responding to inquiries about COVID-19-related issues, move-out questions, account credit/billing issues, Room Draw questions, and incoming student inquiries Identifying alternate assignments for students remaining on campus who have been relocated. In collaboration with campus partners, assisting with the moving distribution center at Dillon Gym and delivering supplies to graduate housing locations.

“During this time, I have been struck by the strength of our team displayed in our ability to effectively support the students and the University’s response effort even though we are physically apart,” said Dorian Johnson, director of housing, Housing and Real Estate Services. “That strength is shown beyond just getting the work done, but also in the appreciation and care that team members have shown for one another.”

Facilities Organization staff members working on campus and remotely range from grounds and building maintenance employees, tradespeople, site protection employees, building services employees including custodians and sanitation workers, operating and maintenance engineers, and materials management and business office employees. Their work to support the on-campus community includes:

Supporting students in isolation or quarantine. This includes a special group of 22 Facilities and Housing employees who have been trained, over and above their regular responsibilities, in using personal protective equipment (PPE), which protects them when they need to provide support and services to someone suspected of or infected with the coronavirus. Ongoing maintenance and repairs, including emergency repairs. Continuing work on campus projects already in progress, from new residential college construction to walkway repairs — while trying to be sensitive to the noise as students are now “attending class” in their dorm rooms. Monitoring energy use to conserve where possible given the decrease in people on campus. Supporting Facilities systems, mobile devices and many staff working remotely for the first time.

“To my staff: I recognize and thank you for all that you do for Facilities, to meet the needs of the University,” said Kyu Whang, vice president for Facilities. “I know you are all dedicated because I see the pride in your work and your support for the University mission, to be in service to the nation and humanity. Thank you all so much for hanging in there. We are in this together!” Other support and services to the on-campus community include:

Mail Services has a rotating schedule to distribute mail and packages for students at Frist as well as to academic departments and other offices. TigerTransit, offered by the Parking and Transportation office, is providing limited service — including “The Shopper,” which takes students and essential staff to the local shopping center. The Office of Information Technology (OIT) continues to provide technical support. 

Emily Aronson contributed to this story. 


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