A look at the team that worked tirelessly to get campus up and running, outfitted for COVID-19 prevention

The coronavirus pandemic upended the traditional campus preparation model, forcing on-the-fly rethinking of everything.

Duties — cleaning, tending, mailing, patrolling ­— and tend-to areas — grounds, buildings, classrooms, dorms — were, as ever, stacked higher than flapjacks at an all-you-can-eat breakfast. Meanwhile, the student arrival deadline got scheduled sooner to allow for staggered arrivals and a campus quarantine. With Vermont Health Department protocols, strategy grew broader, incorporating new cleaning equipment and products, and physical changes to buildings, classrooms and facilities.

For Norwich University’s Facilities Operations team, it was challenge presented, challenge accepted.

“When planning for COVID, there was no playbook,” Norwich Assistant Vice President of Facilities Operations Bill Nash said in an email last week. “We had to write our own playbook. We made changes and adapted as the summer went on.”

“This is the kind of department that’s ready for emergencies. We’re built around that.”Justin Miller, Facilities Operations scheduler

Preparations started in March, when campus closed to flatten the coronavirus infection curve and students abruptly headed home, Nash said. Expecting personal protective equipment and cleaning supply shortages, Nash began ordering stock. Some supplies sought in March are still backordered. 

Meetings filled his calendar. Seemingly everything was discussed — staffing, building operations and maintenance, dorm setups, classroom capacities. To fight the virus, cleaning staff would complement their usual cleaning of high-touch classrooms, bathrooms, and athletic locker rooms with an electrostatic cleaner, handheld backpack-and-hose sprayers.

The hoses shoot a mist called Miracle that gets electrostatically charged as it passes through the nozzle. The charged droplets in the mist repel one another but cling electromagnetically to their targets, enabling 360-degree coverage and on-contact disinfection.  

Staff also had to learn to properly wear and discard personal protective equipment — gloves, masks, sometimes safety goggles — as they worked.

When July arrived, talk time was over; students were due in five short weeks. Rooms were cleaned, grounds were tended and patrolled, mail was sorted and sent, building systems were readied and educational signs posted. Nash said the staff adapted as plans shifted daily, or hourly.

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Joseph LaValley, a two-year Norwich employee and custodian, has added COVID-19 steps to his to everyday cleaning regimen. Every touched surface now gets sprayed with a coronavirus-killing disinfectant delivered through a electrostatic sprayer. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Meanwhile, the clock ticked.

“As essential employees, we have been here every day,” Nash said. “Our staff have been outstanding throughout this ordeal,” he said. “It has been a big learning curve for all.”

Custodial Services Manager Gloria Marceau said imagining the strategy seemed hard at first as everyone thought, “How are we going to do all this extra work?” Facilities Operations Vice President Bizhan Yahyazadeh, who’d worked many jobs in his 40 years at Norwich ­— grounds crew, electrician, facilities operations — knew he’d help figure it out.

Yahyazadeh acknowledged that the COVID-19 work was serious and emotional, given the coronavirus’ potential to kill. It was also challengingly new. But, he said, wary as they were, FacOps staff members carried on professionally, following examples set by university leaders. Justin Miller, Facilities Operations’ scheduler and a 10-year Norwich employee, said the team is built for challenges.

“This is the kind of department that’s ready for emergencies,” he said. “We’re built around that.”

Daniel Booth, a 15-year arena maintenance specialist, broadened his duties. Ordinarily, he minds Kreitzberg Arena, especially at night, driving the Zamboni between periods at ice hockey games and managing logistics for recreational skates. The pandemic subtracted some duties — there won’t be any non-Norwich people nighttime skating — so, he’s tackled other tasks, including maintenance jobs and carpentry, directed by Jon Hatch, Norwich’s sole full-time carpenter.

Eye for detail

Hatch, a 30-year Norwich employee, fixes doors, windows, ceiling tiles, anything in disrepair. Lately, he’s built COVID-19 protections — he spent a month measuring, cutting, sanding and staining to build more than 50 plexiglass screens for classrooms and offices. With every task, he minds details and delivers his best; he wants the person receiving the work to feel special.

Hatch, whose wife, daughter and son are Norwich graduates, isn’t kidding when he says he’s doing the work of three people. One carpenter retired and one left the university between the academic years. Nevertheless, he persists.

“If I sat down and thought about everything I need to do, it would be very daunting,” Hatch said. “So, I try not to. I try to take a section and say, ‘I’ve got to do this. And when I get that done, I’ve got to do this.’”

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The red trucks spotted around campus signal that Facilities Operations is on one of its myriad jobs. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

RELATED: A standing O for FacOps’ everyday heroes

George Sanders, an 18-year Norwich employee, has many duties: grounds weeding, vehicle sanitizing, office furniture moving, event setup and teardown (those duties have been lessened this semester because of the pandemic). He said he’s been doing everything he always did, but distanced and in masks.

With occasional uncertainty has come variety.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”

Joseph LaValley, a two-year Norwich employee and custodian, by contrast, says he often does know what will happen next — there’ll be another floor to clean, another shower to scrub, more trash to collect in the two dormitories he minds. There are new COVID-19 steps now — every touched surface gets electrostatic spray — door handles, soda machine buttons.

LaValley, whose wife, Shelly is also a Norwich custodian, said students have shown respect for his work. Packs of rooks have lately stopped him to deliver salvos of thanks. Last year, a stairs-descending student in South Hall noticed LaValley mopping the lobby and changed course, going back upstairs, across a hall and out a different door to avoid the wet floor.

“It sold me on being here,” LaValley said of the experience.

Shelly LaValley said that with so many hallways, stairways, byways, to clean, she’s tired, but motivated.

“I’m not doing this job for me,” she said. “I’m doing it for them.”

Cohesion and cooperation

Melissa Godin, the nighttime lead custodian, picks up where daytime workers like the LaValleys leave off, so campus wakes to clean, sanitized spaces. She said she’s fine being mostly invisible; she wants her work to show in safe, healthy students.

Colleagues do, too, she said.

“As a team, we do excellent,” she said. “there’s really good communication, between us all. If there’s extra stuff that needs to be done … I don’t have to delegate. Everybody steps up, because we’re all happy with each other.”

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Melissa Godin, the nighttime lead custodian, picks up where daytime custodians leave off, so Norwich University’s campus wakes to clean, sanitized spaces every day. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Collegial communication also works in the mailroom, where supervisor Herb Carleton, a 15-year Norwich employee, has helped new mail clerk Kasi Grondin adjust. (She started in March).

Student lines for mail and mailroom hours this semester will be shorter than in previous semesters. Package piles, though, will be taller; with students confined to campus, they’ve been ordering more stuff. Carleton said he expects 800 to 1,000 packages to come through the mailroom a day when the semester starts, some of it loaded with weighty goods from home or online merchants.

“A lot of heavy Gatorade,” Grondin said.

Carleton said, “And books.”

Clarke Haywood, a Norwich public safety officer since 2018 and a Norwich graduate since 2012, said the lifting, physical and figurative, fits the university’s “I Will Try” ethos. He said he sees his duties going beyond the patrols he makes, the body cam footage he checks, the parking permit program he manages, the service calls he answers. Like Godin, he wants the students to feel safe.

“Being that I was in the Corps … and I want to build that trust,” he said. “There are many great alums and non alums (on campus) who want to help. That’s what I get really the most satisfaction from, helping the students, giving advice as time allows.”

The FacOps teammates seemed happy to have campus stirring toward full activity. Marceau said the team has found its groove and Carleton said the students bring structure to the workers’ schedules and energy and humor to their days.

“The students are our focus,” he said. “They come and go in four years, but if you get to be positive role models to them, it makes it, it makes my whole job.”

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Norwich University Perspectives Project: COVID-19

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