co-heroes

All over campus the past year, UNL staff adjusted, adapted and made sacrifices to meet the new challenges presented by the pandemic. 

Safety for students remained a top priority across all departments, and staff were forced to double and triple their workloads to keep everyone safe during this uncertain period. At times, they put their own health at risk in order to meet the community’s needs.

These are some, but not all, of the departments that stepped up in the past year.

University Housing and Dining Services

Charlie Francis, senior director of University Housing and Dining Services, said university administrators knew early on that despite encouraging students to return home, doing so was not an option for every student, especially international students.

Francis said the decision to move classes remotely was made with a lot of consideration between housing and administrative staff.

“We were watching as COVID spread across the world and planning the entire time,” Francis said. 

Francis said the first challenge of COVID-19 was the rapidly changing information from health organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

“We felt like we were living on shifting sand,” Francis said. “It was a blur of activity.”

Housing staff quickly determined that keeping all buildings open would not be an option either, and the decision to consolidate students into the campus suites was made early on.

Francis said Housing had to also consider students travelling abroad who were called back to the United States and would need a place to quarantine upon their return.

Meetings were held every day, including weekends, and housing, dining and custodial staff never left campus during the uncertain times, he said.

Rebecca Wood, manager of retail food operations at UNL, said the initial cancellation made staff nervous. 

“The worst part was the unknown of it all,” Wood said. “It was hard to plan day to day when you didn’t know what the next day would bring … I remember thinking, ‘This can’t be real, it feels like a bad dream.’”

But the desire to ensure students were able to eat on campus outweighed the fear the dining hall staffers were feeling, and a plan was formed to switch to takeout dining only, provide food to students in isolation housing and rework the Husker Heroes shops around campus, Wood said.

Through the university’s various food vendors, the university was able to keep a steady supply of food coming in, as well as receive the necessary supplies for the shift to to-go dining. Additionally, university officials restricted the number of students allowed inside of the dining halls at a given time and introduced the Transact Mobile Ordering app that students could use for carry-out.

“I think that the dining staff has risen beyond expectations everyday since March 12,” Wood said. “I feel honored to work with such a kind and caring team and feel like the students had such a caring place to be in such a trying time.”

Custodial Services

Estelle DeJonge, the assistant director of Custodial Services, said UNL’s custodial staff purchased disinfectants prior to March 12 and began using them right away to preemptively keep the university clean. Staff also minimized the time spent interacting with one another. 

“We staggered start and end times of breaks [and] employees adjusted where and when they took breaks and ate lunch to minimize contact with each other,” DeJonge said.

DeJonge said the university was constantly requiring adjustments to the cleaning procedures to keep the university safe, and every day the custodial staff rose to the challenge.

“Staff jumped in to help set up disinfecting crews to double disinfect campus in an efficient manner,” DeJonge said. “[The staff] volunteered to go to housing to help cleanout space so that quarantine space could be set up, and for the Spring 2021 semester, our staff volunteered to clean the quarantine area.”

The financial impact, lessons learned and new cleaning procedures will have a major effect on the way custodial staff operate for years to come, DeJonge said.

One of UNL’s most visited buildings is the Nebraska Union on City Campus, which operates with a custodial staff separate from the rest of the university. 

Linda Scott, a custodial supervisor for the Nebraska Union, said emotions were mixed after the initial cancellation of in-person classes. Uncertainty, fear and nervousness were the most prevalent. 

“We needed to keep our composure to be of any help to the students,” Scott said in an email. The University offered opportunities from the beginning for staff to take time away from work or to work remotely due to health concerns.

There were also opportunities for staff to help other departments with sanitation, cleaning and preparing the various other departments on campus, which many of the union’s staff were part of.

“This is just one big speed bump that everyone hit at the same time,” Scott said. “Maybe it’ll slow us down for a bit to help us see what’s important in life.”

Facilities Maintenance and Operations

Larry Shippen, the associate director for Housing Facilities Operations, said the amount of knowledge learned in these difficult times can not be understated. Shippen said from the beginning, the top priority was keeping students safe. 

Facilities staff helped to install plexiglass in the dining halls and c-stores and assembled the indoor testing pods. There was a constant dialogue to determine the safest way to return students to campus for the fall semester, said Shippen.

“That [discussion] led to the construction of the hand sanitizer stations all around campus,” he said. “We’ve built 11 Covid testing sheds, and it goes on and on.”

It wasn’t just City Campus that required new safeguards, but East Campus as well. Andy Smriga, the senior assistant director of the Nebraska East Union, said the initial closing felt like it was a short term closure initially.

“We were trying to get ahead of the closure by preparing items for staff to do remotely,” Smriga said in an email. 

At the time, the east union was completing the renovation of many of the staff’s offices and the Great Plains ballroom. An open house had been hosted the week before March 12 to see the renovation process up to that point.

“Just days after the open house, everything changed,” Smriga said.

The staff returning in July would see many of the offices in the east union demolished and in some cases rebuilt. 

“We literally returned to a different building,” Smriga said. “Not only had we been physically apart from one another for months, we also had to figure out how to operate in the new spaces in general, as well as apply our COVID-19 protocols throughout the building.”

Both unions have their own custodial and maintenance staff, and Smriga said that despite not being an official part of the union staff, the east union’s staff has been incredibly resilient in rising to meet the new challenges.

Despite the east union welcoming less students since the start of the pandemic, Smriga says it’s exciting nonetheless. 

“There’s a great energy,” he said. “We will continue to work hard to keep the campus community feeling safe and welcome in our building.”

covid@dailynebraskan.com