Just about a year ago I shared my thoughts with the readership regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. I discussed the satisfaction of meeting the pandemic head on, the disruption it caused our staffs, student, and faculty, and the uncertainty it created about enrollment, and I ended by sharing a glimmer of hope that the fall ’21 opening would bring us back to some sort of normalcy. Now, a year later, I am sharing new thoughts about forging ahead and how we as facilities professionals are going to plan and manage things quite differently. As I look around my campus, my chapter, and my APPA, I am gaining the strength and resiliency needed to process the pandemic experience and move forward to new beginnings, especially in the following areas: defining who we are now as a campus and a department, thinking differently, and finding our “new norm.”
Who We Are Now
The Class of 2024 will be like no other. Their high school experiences were altered by the pandemic in many ways. Few had proms; fewer had in-person commencement ceremonies. Just as the pandemic became a reality, many had their college acceptances in hand, and most were looking forward to their first-year college experience of living independently. Meanwhile, higher education institutions were suddenly scrambling to get students safely off campus and to gear up for remote learning.
Administratively we formed task forces and resourced as many professionals as we could to learn how to cope (because as many know, the pandemic section in our disaster planning manuals was probably not as robust as the other content). We smiled behind those masks and kept our cool as we embarked on this journey, not really knowing the destination.
As we know, the fall of 2020 did not follow the “norm.” Many campuses are operating at less than 100% in person. Dining areas have limited capacity, sports teams have missed two seasons, and as we have discovered, hybrid learning has reduced residence hall occupancies. There have been staff reductions, particularly in facilities departments. These changes are challenges. How will we make progress with such radical adjustments to deal with? Competition is stiff for incoming classes. Campuses are engaging their entire community to recruit and retain students with vigor. Facilities managers are at the forefront, leading with agility in a volatile environment. Members are seizing every opportunity to learn from their peers, business partners, and professional associations. These relationships are contributing to a new beginning for some and renewal for others. We are thinking differently.
Why are we thinking differently? Because we are forced to, and I might add, more quickly. With the arrival of the pandemic, data and solutions to disinfecting, air filtration, and mitigation through social distancing did not flow like a lazy stream—they gushed with the force of a raging river. We listened to engineered solutions to air quality, we researched whether an alcohol hand sanitizer was more effective than peroxide-based solutions, and we answered questions we had never gotten before—and we often needed justification for those answers.
Our campus leadership wanted to know if our air-handling systems operated safely or if germs were being spread unknowingly? With little time to process all that was happening, we embarked on the mission of transforming what we already believed to be safe and clean campuses into cleaner, more efficient ones. In our new world, new language is gaining ground: mitigation, ultraviolet rays, pivoting, herd immunity, etc.—and these terms are here to stay. To go forward, we must embrace the science and technology and remain vigilant.
The New Norm
What is our new norm in the education facilities world? For many, it is a smaller workforce both in numbers and in our buildings. Like our friends in the private sector, working remotely has had surprisingly positive results in terms of efficiencies. Getting all colleagues to return to their campus may be a formidable challenge. For our facilities staff, there are now fewer offices to maintain and clean, less trash to remove, and fewer cars on campus.
Sadly, for many campuses there are also fewer students enrolled, particularly in small private liberal arts colleges. Moreover, there are the beginning movements of consolidation/mergers of colleges for the private schools and consolidation of campuses for the state schools. With these moves comes the need for facilities professionals to engage more than ever. Engagement in professional development is paramount as we welcome the new norm.
While we may see the pandemic in our rearview mirror (almost), there are many changes on the horizon that have yet to emerge. We weathered a terrific storm by staying the course. To my colleagues, I say, “Stay strong, and embrace the new frontier of post-COVID 19!”
There are many exciting days to come. We will reunite and assemble again in our professional classrooms as conferences reappear on the calendar. Our APPA staff and regional boards are gaining momentum as our leaders in the post-pandemic world and are ready to guide us to our new norm with exciting opportunities to learn. It’s time to forge ahead!
Patty Smith is director of facilities at Cabrini University in Radnor, PA. She can be reached at [email protected].