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  • 2020-03-30
  • John Follaco

The Unsung Heroes Behind Brockport’s COVID-19 Response

Meet the individuals who have helped SUNY Brockport overcome unprecedented challenges during uncertain times.

For weeks, COVID-19 (commonly known as the Coronavirus) hadn’t hit home. Americans watched from afar as the disease spread from Asia to Europe. Concern over students studying abroad began to grow.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY study abroad students in the most impacted countries would be brought home and given an option of self-quarantining at home or undergoing a precautionary quarantine at a SUNY campus. SUNY Brockport was one of two sites selected to host these students. Suddenly, the hysteria that had been taking place across the ocean was on the College’s doorstep, and the campus scrambled to prepare for it.

Within days of those students arriving on campus, another major development surfaced. Governor Cuomo announced that all SUNY and CUNY classes would transition to alternative delivery formats for the remainder of the spring semester. 

Two weeks. Two unprecedented challenges. Two opportunities for SUNY Brockport to shine.

Supplies for quarantined students

Learn about some of the outstanding teams/individuals who made it happen:

The Buyers

SUNY charged Brockport with making the 14-day experience as comfortable as possible for its guests, taking both physical and mental health into account.

The campus received word it was a potential host site on March 4 and was tasked with preparing to host up to 96 students in the event it was deemed necessary. Official word didn’t come until March 7 — hours before the first group was to arrive. How was a vacant building transformed into a comfortable residence in three days?

That’s where Mark Stacy and the Procurement & Payment Services team came in.

“We needed to obtain everything we needed within 24 hours,” Stacy said.

They purchased microwaves, refrigerators, toiletries, and a wide assortment of medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

“We went to the Dollar Tree and pretty much wiped out the store,” Stacy said. “We bought 100 shampoos, 100 conditioners, 100 razors…basically all of those little things you can possibly think of that the students might need.”

Stacy’s team needed to shop for personnel, too. The Hazen Health Center staff couldn’t handle the group’s nursing needs alone. So, they sought to contract with a company who could provide nursing support. But organization after organization turned down the work. Everyone feared the possibility of being exposed to COVID-19.

One of Stacy’s team members knew someone who was an independent nurse. While the rest of the team worked in Gordon Hall to prepare rooms for the students on the day they were scheduled to arrive, Pam Powell called her friend — who happened to be shopping at the Brockport Walmart.

“We went and picked her up, brought her in, drew up a contract, and she worked in Gordon Hall each day during the quarantine,” Stacy said. “They say you can find everything at Walmart. We found independent nursing.”

Gordon Hall room with supplies

The Facilities Team

Brockport’s SUNY study abroad guests would be moving into Gordon Hall, which hadn’t housed students since last May. So, when Brad Menear, assistant director of maintenance services, heard the building needed to be ready at a moment’s notice, he was a bit concerned.

“We had been stealing parts from Gordon to be used when things broke down in other buildings. Sinks were off the walls and showers were torn apart. We needed to get it all operational,” Menear said. “Every sink and every showerhead had to be ran. Every toilet had to be flushed.”

In preparation for upcoming construction work, all building furniture had been stockpiled in the building’s lounge — which meant it all had to be brought back into the suites and reassembled. After, of course, the entire building was cleaned.

“We flipped the building to move-in ready in a day and a half. Under normal circumstances, a job like that would take close to a week,” said Larry Brien, assistant director of physical plant services.

Both Brien and Menear say their teams never flinched. Once the situation was explained to them, they jumped into action and devised a plan to get the building in shape.

But their work was far from done. The cleaners, movers, and maintenance teams joined others from around campus to stock each room with necessary supplies. For example, to avoid contact with the outside, each guest would be asked to clean the restroom after each use (Gordon has a restroom in every two-bedroom suite). That meant they’d need cleaning products.

The group put together a bunch of cleaning supplies from the housekeeping inventory, but they realized they didn’t have any buckets. And they needed as many as 96 of them.

“We had to go to three different Lowes locations to find that many buckets,” Menear said. “But we found them.”

Once the students arrived, the housekeeping staff continued to play a significant role. Seven people volunteered to work in the building. And they did much more than clean. They also did laundry and delivered meals and packages.

It was an experience Brien, Menear, and their teams won’t soon forget.

“I remember looking around one morning and seeing so many people from across campus working together. That’s what Brockport is to me,” Brien said. “When the chips are down, that’s when we shine.”

Facilities worker in Gordon Hall room

The Health Care Providers

The housekeeping staff wasn’t alone inside Gordon Hall with the quarantined students. A nurse was on duty 24 hours a day. The independent nurse who the purchasing team secured would staff the building from 8 am until 5 pm Monday through Friday. The Hazen Health Center team would handle the rest — in addition to its daily responsibilities.

One Hazen nurse would work a 24-hour shift each day. They’d report to Gordon Hall at 4:30 pm and would work until 8 am. Then they’d work their typical 8 am to 4:30 pm shift at Hazen.

“There was a bed where they could sleep — but it was interrupted sleep,” said Cheryl Van Lare, director of the Hazen Center for Integrated Care. “We had students who had been studying in South Korea, so they were taking online classes based in South Korea. So they were up during the night and slept during the day.”

Their responsibilities included logging regular temperature checks, providing care for illnesses (while no students tested positive for COVID-19, a few suffered from other ailments during their precautionary quarantine), taking inventory of supplies, picking up prescriptions, and much more.

Van Lare remembers her initial reaction when she first learned Brockport might be a quarantine site.

“I thought it would be impossible,” she said. “Then you get through that initial reaction and start to figure it out. Our staff had a lot of questions. We needed to allay some fears. But once we did, we began to think ‘we can do this.’ They really stepped up.”

The Debbies

As word began to leak out that SUNY Brockport was being considered as a host site for the precautionary quarantine, concerns began to rise — both on campus and in our surrounding community. COVID-19 had yet to come to Monroe County. Would these students be bringing it here?

But as the public began to learn more about the disease and the precautions that were taking place at Brockport, the narrative began to shift. Instead of expressing their fear, people began expressing a desire to help make this experience as positive as possible for our guests. Local government officials reached out to Brockport President Heidi Macpherson seeking ways for their constituents to help. A website was developed, and two staff members were tasked with coordinating the effort.

Longtime friends Debbie Jacob, the college’s director of marketing, and Debbie Lester, administrative assistant to the two assistant vice presidents in the Division of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, developed a plan for donations to be dropped off at the Allen Administration Building and brought over to Gordon Hall. Students could select items through a group messaging system.

Thousands of items poured in, the vast majority coming in the first few days of the program. The two Debbies vetted them, organized them, and ensured students were getting what they needed in a timely fashion.

Perhaps the duo’s signature initiative was throwing an impromptu birthday party for one of the students. She received wrapped birthday presents (including a Brockport sweatshirt) and a birthday cake. Her fellow students received birthday cupcakes. And then a group of more than 50 students, faculty, staff, and administration gathered outside of her window to sing "Happy Birthday."

“The Debbies went above and beyond to make Brockport feel like home for our guests who likely have never stepped foot on our campus,” said Sara Kelly, Brockport’s assistant vice president for enrollment management and student affairs. “Their genuine care and concern for the students is what makes Brockport a special place.”

The Programmers

While others where busy ensuring that the quarantined students had all of the items necessary to be comfortable during their two-week residency in Gordon Hall, two SUNY Brockport staff members sought to protect their mental health by keeping them engaged and active.

Dylan George from the Center for Global Education and Engagement and Vanessa Taylor from the Office of Residential Life/Learning Communities were tasked with providing programming for the students while adhering to the strict quarantine procedures.

George and Taylor got creative, coming up with a dynamic slate of programs that could be done virtually. One night, the group celebrated “Throwback Thursday.” It was themed around the 2000s era. Each student received a “Throwback Thursday” bag filled with snacks and candies designed to be reminiscent of their childhood (examples include Gushers and Fruit by the Foot). The bags also contained a bingo board. Trivia questions were read to the students over Zoom video conferencing, and students marked off the answers on their boards. Whoever got Bingo first won a prize.

On Friday the 13th, the group watched a scary movie together on Netflix. George and Taylor turned it into a scavenger hunt with a quiz at the end. Other programming included St. Patrick’s Day virtual trivia, yoga, and e-sports.

“The students absolutely loved it,” said Keith Davis, associate director of international enrollment and campus support.

One student in particular, Davis said, would engage in the activity each and every day. The day before the first group of students departed, when everyone was busy preparing to go home, this student was the only one who chose to participate in the activity.

“He ended up just playing against Dylan,” Davis said. “That really impressed me. Even if only one student showed up, Dylan was still there to entertain.”

TV in Gordon Hall

The BASC Team

Upon hearing of the potential that Brockport would be a SUNY precautionary quarantine site, Brockport Auxiliary Service Corporation (BASC) was tasked with developing a way to feed the students without them ever leaving their residence hall rooms.

They started with pantry items. The hope was that the purchasing team would be able to have microwaves and refrigerators set up in each room prior to their arrival. But time was running short. BASC raided the inventory of its on-campus convenience store to make sure each room was filled with paper goods, granola bars, chips, beverages, and other snack foods.

The team set up an online ordering system, allowing students to begin ordering their meals a day in advance upon arrival. They would be able to notify the dining services team of any allergy restrictions or dietary needs. But what about the first day or so after they arrived? BASC sent over both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options to ensure the students were properly nourished.

No sooner was a plan set into motion for the quarantine before BASC was faced with another challenge. With New York City and Westchester County suffering greatly from the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 250 Brockport students chose to stay in their residence halls instead of going home. And these students needed to be fed.

The vast majority of BASC’s team wasn’t scheduled to work during spring break. The only food service location scheduled to be open was Jitterbugs Café for just breakfast and lunch. But BASC’s leadership put out a call for help, and a dozen or so workers volunteered to come in and open Brockway Dining Hall during spring break.

“It’s really been a team effort over these last few weeks,” said Anna Hintz, BASC’s assistant executive director. “Everyone has chipped in and done whatever was asked of them.”

Snacks in Gordon Hall

The Brockport Student Government

The earliest BASC could open Brockway Dining Hall was the Monday of spring break. That meant no food service would be available to students who chose to stay on campus.

Once Brockport Student Government (BSG) learned of the situation, it immediately took action. BSG worked with area food merchants, Mark’s Pizzeria, Perri’s Pizzeria, and Jimmy Z’s Plates and Shakes, to arrange weekend delivery of lunch and dinner to the residence halls.

Sheet after sheet of pizza were brought into each residence hall for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Jimmy Z’s handled dinner — shipping out countless orders of chicken fingers and French fries.

“Initially, I was super concerned that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off,” said Sarah Martelle, BSG’s activities director. “I was worried the food places wouldn’t have enough food or manpower to be able to help us out. But they helped us out immensely. I’m glad BSG was able to help make it happen.”

The Instructional Designers

Jeff Thompson, Brockport’s assistant director for academic systems and instructional support, was attending one of President Macpherson’s open office hours when word came that Governor Cuomo was about to make a significant announcement. Macpherson, Thompson, and others watched the webcast of the governor’s press conference as he announced that SUNY and CUNY institutions would transition to alternative instructional formats for the remainder of the semester.

“We were just in awe,” Thompson said. “I knew we had kind of been preparing for this, but now we had to get faculty ready for this in just over a week. And some faculty members aren’t into technology. At all.”

Thompson’s team of instructional designers had been working to gather all of its training resources in the event there was a sudden need. They created a training course, “Blackboard 101: Accelerated Online Preparation,” and began scheduling consecutive hour-long sessions for faculty members.

That course was offered in a face-to-face format for the first three days of spring break before SUNY instituted a telecommuting policy. Ever since, the instructional designers have been on the phone with faculty members non-stop. First, the focus was to familiarize users with Blackboard, Brockport’s online learning management platform. Now, it’s shifted toward helping faculty creatively adapt their classes to a virtual environment.

Thompson describes how his team worked closely with a faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Music Studies who taught a class in which students received credit for participating in theatre productions. The instructional designers suggested having students build small stages or dioramas at home, asking them to record the process and turn it into an instructional video. They also suggested students utilize the virtual kitchen designer on the Lowes website to design a set on a computer.

“This is a time where we’re trying to think outside the box,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to encourage faculty to consider things they’ve never thought of before and maybe thought something was previously impossible to do.”

Between the efforts of the instructional designers and countless others throughout the Division of Academic Affairs, more than 1,500 courses were brought online in a week — including labs and performance courses.

The Emergency Operation Center

Fred Rion has spent nearly every day of the last three and a half years preparing SUNY Brockport to effectively manage emergency situations like this. He has led table-top exercises and full-scale simulations in which staff members practice responding to emergencies using principles outlined in the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

A key component of NIMS is the Emergency Operation Center (EOC), where decision makers from the relevant campus departments come together to manage a crisis. Ultimately, this group is responsible for providing the resources necessary to handle a situation and making recommendations to President’s Cabinet — which in NIMS language is called the "Policy Group."

COVID-19 led to the first full-scale opening of Brockport’s EOC since Rion became the College’s first full-time emergency manager in 2016. Rion has managed the group alongside Director of Environmental Health and Safety Julie Caswell and Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Sara Kelly.

Its initial task was managing the precautionary quarantine of the SUNY study abroad students who had returned from Italy, Japan, and South Korea. Caswell played a particularly crucial role in establishing the precautionary quarantine procedures, coordinating with campus, state, and local health officials; ensuring staff wore appropriate personal protective equipment; developing cleaning protocols; and, according to Rion, pretty much anything else you could imagine.

The day the first batch of students arrived from Italy, Rion and Caswell worked nearly 24-hour shifts. First, their work entailed preparation. Then it was greeting the students when they arrived on a bus from New York City in the middle of the night and ensuring they were checked into their rooms appropriately. Two nights later, when the cohort of students from Japan and South Korea arrived, Caswell was back at it again for another nearly 24-hour shift.

“She actually slept in her car for a few hours so she could get a little sleep and still make sure she was there when the students arrived,” Rion said. “Her dedication is truly incredible.”

The EOC’s responsibilities quickly escalated from managing not only the precautionary quarantine, but the need to reduce campus density to combat the spread of COVID-19. The group has been operational, in one way, shape or form, every day since learning SUNY Brockport was a potential quarantine site on March 4.

Rion came to Brockport after working in Monroe County government for 21 years. There, he managed a number of incidents, including H1N1, major weather events, PGA-events, and others. He’s been impressed by how the College has managed the crisis.

“I had hundreds of staff in some cases (at the county), what seemed like an unlimited budget, and a world-class Emergency Operations Center building at my disposal,” Rion said. “I can honestly say I would take this group, the resources we have, and the dedication of our staff — and take on any event that is thrown at us.”

Last Updated 5/26/21

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