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APPA COVID-19 Message Following the April 17, 2020 APPA Town Hall

April 20, 2020

headshot of Lander Medlin

An occasional blogpost from Lander Medlin, APPA’s Executive Vice President

Impact of COVID-19 on O&M Requirements, Residential Facilities, and Beyond

April 20, 2020  —  This global pandemic is ravaging our communities, healthcare systems, and yes, the economy, in unimaginable ways.  This past week marked over 750,000 coronavirus cases and, unfortunately worse yet, over 40,000 deaths in the U.S. alone – all within six weeks.  We have been warned that we are far from the end of the effects of this insidious virus.  What it will take to reopen the economy is still being debated federally and state-by-state.  The other unconscionable number is 22M people applied for unemployment benefits—now representing 13.5% of the U.S. workforce, having grown by another 5M people in one week.  This is unfathomable and unfortunately our new normal.  Now more than ever before, we must continue to do the one thing we know makes a difference in flattening the curve – social/physical distancing.  It’s working!  So behave as if you have the virus.  Individual actions can make a collective impact.  Think of it this way, “Use your head.  Stop the spread!” 

Correspondingly, this pandemic is taking a toll on our educational institutions. The April 17 APPA Town Hall focused on the workplace challenges facing the O&M delivery system at our small liberal arts colleges and the corresponding impact on our institutions’ residential facilities staff.  Although showing signs of settling out, there’s so much more to the story.  The panelists’ stories speak to the challenges of managing, valuing your custodial staff in a time of heightened uncertainty and fear; understanding and providing for the critical operations of student housing, its workloading, resourcing, and inventory assessments; the mindset shifts needed to manage multiple auxiliary facilities, both in “closing the doors” and then “opening” them back up again; and the critical needs, perspectives, and phases of engagement to manage a small, 1600-student, liberal arts college.  And, as we said last Friday, when it comes to managing our people, there is no one right way or strategy.  Every institution and its associated organizational culture is different! 

Therefore, we were thrilled to have a stellar panel for our 5th Town Hall sharing their knowledge, expertise, and varied perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on O&M requirements, residential facilities, and beyond. 

Andy Feick, Swarthmore College
Tanya Hughes, University of Florida
Derek Jackson, Kansas State University
Rollie Zumbrunn, University of Virginia

This Town Hall was presented in collaboration with our partner ACUHO-I (the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International). 

In addition, we previewed the preliminary results of the Grounds/Landscaping Operations survey.  Please visit our website under COVID-19 Surveys & Related Responses for a summary and details of the final results.  Some additional highlights follow:

  • Collaboration is key. Sounds easy but engaging Institution-wide teams and partnerships to achieve a collective set of objectives is a must.
  • Training is critical in reducing virus transmission, keeping employees’ safe, and increasing confidence in the protocols and processes. When we train our people, they feel valued!
  • Individual and team recognition and appreciation go a long way to ensure team members feel important…because they are!
  • Keep your pulse on your staff’s mental health and well-being. Communicate personally, openly and transparently.  Just stop talking and listen.  Don’t hesitate to refer staff to your institution’s resources (EAP, HR, Counseling, and tele-med services).
  • Document all expenses and personnel costs related to the COVID-19 crisis if eligible for insurance or FEMA claims.
  • Electrostatic foggers have been used as valuable tools for comprehensive sanitizing.
  • If you find a need to convert your dormitories into healthcare facilities, refer to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “H2HC” public document for more details. 
  • Engage in group led “table top” exercises, questions, or scenarios with your team. You gain new perspectives along with their ownership and buy-in.  It’s empowering!
  • One such table top exercise was: How do we assess essential functions?  Who does that work and who else can that could be assigned?  Do they need training?  What written instructions are needed to document tasks and processes?
  • Make sure you are engaged across these three phases as you manage your people and your response to COVID-19: 1) Reacting (that time of uncertainty and fear in a rapidly evolving environment);  2) Sustaining (staffing and structure needed for essential operations);  and 3) Planning (consideration of social/physical distancing and market devaluation for the institution in the short and long term).  Each one of these phases were explored in detail with cogent advice and solid questions to help you think through a number of key considerations for purposes of business continuity.

As you can readily surmise, the impact is unmistakably broad.  We don’t know what the world is going to look like.  And, although this is an ever-changing crisis, we must embrace flexibility, a willingness to quickly adapt and re-adapt, and focus time and attention on the implications to and scenarios for our institutional operations this coming academic year and thereafter.  Yes, we are dealing with some very harsh realities. SO, during these hardships, I would strongly suggest that every day, you decide to be intentional about…

  • looking people in the eye…it says you matter;
  • providing a word of encouragement…it says you matter; and,
  • giving a “virtual” touch…it says you matter.

Our people matter!  Let’s show them how much we mean that by our compassion and calm in the chaos.

E. Lander Medlin
APPA Executive Vice President

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