By Abby Weingarten
After midnight, before dawn and long into the afternoons, they are on campus, keeping the buildings safe, making the college run.
While remote workers are asleep at home in quarantine, they are scrubbing, repairing and maintaining every facet of the grounds. And when the offices and common areas are empty, they are getting them prepped for the occasional guest.
These are the quiet, diligent custodial, maintenance and grounds workers at New College—the ones who adhere to their onsite shifts every week while the nation is on lockdown. They haven’t stopped since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic started. They haven’t called in sick. They haven’t complained. And while they often go unseen and unnamed, they are the reason the campus is so secure, strong and beautiful.
“These are very scary and uncertain times. But, in any kind of national emergency, there are frontline people, and they’re as important to the college continuing on in the future as anyone,” said Alan Burr, New College’s director of facilities and construction. “These are some of the lower-paid people on campus and they have to come to work every day; they’re not staying home. I’m very proud of them that they’re doing their duty and calmly working so hard, together.”
Sheila Foley, New College’s custodial coordinator, has watched her staff endure multiple challenges—from taking care of abandoned residence halls (when campus evacuation abruptly became mandatory) to maneuvering around the schedules of sporadic onsite employees.
“How could anybody have been prepared for this? Every day you’re grateful that you’re here and moving forward, and you’re hoping for just another day,” Foley said of the pandemic. “But we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances and I’m really proud of my staff.”
Since early March, the custodial workers have been sanitizing surfaces with a solution called Stellar RFS-10 (Rinse-Free Sanitizer)—a Quaternary Ammonium Compound and Environmental Protection Agency-recognized coronavirus killer.
“The chemicals in this solution are designed to dwell, to kill the virus (it’s not just sprayed and wiped off immediately). We’re cleaning and then sanitizing all high-touch points throughout campus: door knobs, elevator buttons, switches, faucet handles, etc.,” said Foley, whose expertise in sanitation is serving her well right now (she previously worked as a housekeeping manager for operating rooms and nursing homes). “If people have to get into an office, they’ll let me know and, after they’re done, we’ll come back and sanitize.”
Foley and Burr are currently operating with limited staff (custodial and grounds are at 50 percent while maintenance is at 85 percent), and employees ages 65 and older are staying home for a designated period (they may voluntarily return after April 30, though the date is subject to change).
Custodial shifts run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and midnight to 8:30 a.m., and Foley is subcontracting with outside companies to supplement her staff as needed. There is no overarching mandate coming from the State University System of Florida about how to handle operations during a time like this; the campuses are using their own discretion and creating protocol independently.
“Right now, we’re looking to do stuff in housing because all of the refrigerators in the residence halls were left full when students left, so we have to get all the food out,” Foley said. “Some rooms have garbage because students left and they thought they were coming back.”
The custodial workers will have cleaning delays until the students move all items out of their dorm rooms—a process that the housing office staff is currently coordinating.
“The staff that is here working on campus—not just custodial but our maintenance team, our grounds team, all of the people who are working to just maintain our campus—they are all selflessly coming in. There’s no one who’s calling out,” Foley said. “They really are stepping up to the best of their abilities. My night crew, almost all of them are working overtime every single night to put in extra time to get things knocked out. I’m extraordinarily proud of everybody. I’m sentimental about the people here just trying to keep things going.”
The maintenance crew is taking care of all electrical and plumbing systems, changing the filters in the air conditioning units and keeping the backup generators functional. Much of the office staff (those who handle planning, design and construction management) are using Google hangouts instead of in-person meetings, and the police and mail workers are still dutifully onsite.
“I am proud to be part of the services team on campus. The other staff in Physical Plant, mechanical, maintenance, electrical, HVAC, plumbers and grounds workers all have been working to keep the campus in the best condition we’re able to while looking forward to the students returning,” said Ricky Miles, New College’s custodial superintendent. “Our administration has been doing their best with this unknown pandemic, and I am also proud of the campus police department who are here every day and night.”
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitizing chemicals and hand soap are currently in sufficient supply, Miles said. And though there may not be enough PPE for the entire campus, there is enough in place for custodial cleaning needs.
“People are very concerned and fearful now, rightly so, just because of so many unknown factors, especially asymptomatic people spreading the virus,” Burr said. “So people who come to work want to be in contact with as few people as possible. The maintenance staff used to work together and now they’re not working as teams. But they still get their hours in. They get their 80 hours every two weeks, and no one has canceled.”
It is due, in large part, to these workers that New College is thriving amid the chaos.
“My team has done a tremendous job in responding to the various challenges and obstacles this pandemic has created,” Miles said. “Staff shortages, increased workloads, potential illness…and all the while, they continue to not only come in but to keep a positive, proactive attitude. They care about the New College community in their actions every day.”
So the next time we feel cold air conditioning, see a sparkling countertop or step on a patch of freshly mowed grass, we can know some of the names behind the impeccable work. And we can give gratitude to the keepers of the campus.
Below are the people who are currently working on campus during the COVID-19 outbreak:
Alan Burr (director)
Curtis Davis (associate director)
Mary Herman (office manager)
Linda Ranker (office coordinator)
Sheila Foley (coordinator)
Ricky Miles (custodial superintendent)
Curtis Hodges (lead)
Seni Ok (coordinator)
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.