As many university buildings have closed and faculty and students zoomed in on classes, an assortment of key UW staff have remained on campus for a year and a half. From security facilities and crews to staff at residences and restaurants, frontline workers at UW have shown up in person – and continue to show up – to keep the campus safe, clean and ready for students when the he university will reopen with modified operations in the fall.
Staff members have fulfilled their professional responsibilities while protecting the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues. Mask warrants, safety protocols and the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine this winter have provided some protection. However, the best way to avoid contracting COVID-19 is to avoid exposure in the first place – a tall order when working near other people.
As UW approaches its first term in person this fall since the university closed almost 18 months ago, these frontline workers continue to provide essential services to the campus community.
Mary Beth Johnson: Chief Apartment Painter, Housing and Food Services
While some colleges have sent students to pack their bags, UW Housing & Food Services (HFS) has continued to operate for UW students in need of housing throughout the pandemic. Faced with the growing urgency of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, not all campus residents have chosen to stay. Some students returned to live with their families and stayed in their hometowns for the next academic year, but others returned to campus a few months later in the fall, hoping to have some semblance of d normal university experience.
During the 2020-21 school year, HFS welcomed approximately 4,000 residents, less than half of their standard capacity. Across the residential community, HFS instituted security and cleaning protocols early on, giving security crews more responsibility in addition to their day-to-day duties.
Maintenance Supervisor Ray Alfano acknowledged how fortunate he and his team have been to keep their jobs at a time when unemployment has risen nationwide. His team has maintained a positive attitude and continues to do the work necessary to manage the HFS infrastructure.
For Mary Beth Johnson, chief painter of HFS apartments, the reduction in occupancy has given maintenance crews more opportunities to update appliances, repaint spaces and stay occupied.
“It even got a little busier because we were able to get into places we weren’t normally able to get in to do the job,” said Johnson, who has worked for HFS for four years.
Everyone who works in HFS buildings is wearing masks and vaccination rates statewide are increasing, Johnson explained. While HFS expects to return to standard housing capacity, Johnson plans to continue its important work.
“I don’t intend it to be any different,” Johnson said.
Nicole Siciliano: Director of Programs, Haggard Nelson Childcare Resources
Take a stroll around the West Campus and you might meet a group of toddlers for their daily walk on the Burke-Gilman Trail or hear a troop of children playing cat in the backyard of the UW Children’s Center.
Haggard Nelson Childcare Resources operates six child care centers in Seattle, four of which are operated in partnership with UW. UW students, staff and faculty can register their children at West Campus, Portage Bay, Laurel Village or Radford Court.
Nicole Siciliano manages administrative duties through the company’s main office and has assisted the West Campus Children’s Center in its transition to leadership.
At the onset of the pandemic, centers severely limited enrollment capacity to provide child care only to families of essential staff. Over time, the centers have increased the number of registrations. Staying open has been important for members of the UW community served by child care centers, as many parents themselves are frontline workers at UW Medical Center, according to Siciliano.
Young children may seem unlikely to be kept clean and masked, but Siciliano says they’ve done well. For children who are new to the center, it may have taken a slight adjustment period to become comfortable, but overall the children have mastered the safety requirements.
“The older kids remember to put on their masks,” Siciliano said. “They don’t seem to care too much.”
Mark Pilder: Mail Services Pilot, UW Creative Communications: Mail Services
Zooming in on campus on an electrically assisted cargo bike is the job of Mark Pilder. Over the past three years, Pilder has been a driving force behind UW courier services, delivering mail and parcels to more than 80,000 students, staff and faculty in 455 departments across campus.
Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people actively working on campus has declined, but the workload of the postal services has remained high. As the college hubbub subsided, mail processors and delivery drivers on campus remained relatively busy, handling graduation mailings, dorm supplies, and other standard mail.
While fewer people on the streets make it easier to ride big, heavy bikes around campus, it’s not the same without the usual campus buzz.
“The campus is generally empty and quiet during the winter break,” Pilder said. “But it’s been like this for 18 months.”
Plus, said Pilder, getting a cup of coffee was very difficult.
Chris Erick: Managing Director of Local Point and Cultivate, Housing & Food Services
Local Point, the West Campus dining hall, serves approximately 4,000 students per day in a typical year. With room occupancy declining over the past 18 months, the dining hall staff saw approximately 1,000 students per day.
As a facility built on the idea of social eating, HFS catering teams have faced several unique challenges to keep residents and staff safe throughout the pandemic. At first, residents could only order take-out, with plexiglass barriers separating customers from cashiers. Normally bustling residential centers have gone silent, except for the occasional beeping of kitchen appliances or the sound of pop music playing softly from overhead speakers.
Social distancing ambassadors reminded students to maintain distance between other guests and regularly sanitized and cleaned high-contact surfaces.
As Washington slowly lifted security guidelines, residents were once again allowed to sit at tables and sofas in large dining rooms.
For Chris Erick, director of Local Point and Elm Hall’s Cultivate, serving as both a frontline worker and a staff supervisor had its challenges. It was a daily battle to make staff and students feel safe and comfortable, Erick said.
“The anxiety was a huge thing,” Erick said. “It’s always like that.”
Working as a team throughout these changes took a lot of listening and compassion.
And of the 35 workers at Local Point, there has not been a single case of COVID-19 transmitted – an achievement Erick is particularly proud of.
After 18 months of university operation, UW’s frontline workers will continue to be on campus this fall term. Students will fill residences, community spaces and classrooms, often crossing paths with staff in positions like those described here. Take the time to thank these essential workers, or offer a friendly “hello”. After all, it’s the workers who make the UW work.
Contact reporter Hannah Sheil at [email protected] Twitter: @thehannahsheil
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