‘We can’t shut down’: Temple facilities staff work through COVID-19 pandemic

The team installed COVID-19 safety features, like plexiglass and sanitizing stations in classrooms and on campus.

Quay Montgomery, a grounds employee, stands in front of his utility vehicle at the Bell Tower on March 15. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When students, faculty and administration left Temple University’s Main Campus in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one group of staff remained on the virtually empty campus, working through the summer to ensure a safe return in the fall.  

Temple facilities, cleaning, grounds and maintenance staff prepared Main Campus facilities for the return to classrooms for the 2020-21 school year. Deemed essential workers by the university, some staff worked through Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown of nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania on March 16, 2020, maintaining Main Campus, installing touchless faucets and sanitizer stations and deep cleaning buildings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus. 

Following campus closures in March 2020, the university announced that staff would continue to work as usual, but those who are in high-risk groups could discuss the possibility of working remotely, The Temple News reported

Campus buildings still needed upkeep, despite not being used by students, faculty and other staff, so maintenance workers were essential, said Sean Ounan, assistant director of operations and maintenance on Main Campus. 

“We can’t shut down,” Ounan said. “The university shut down a year ago, but we can’t just shut the lights off and walk away.”

Housekeeping staff left March 13, 2020, once Main Campus shut down due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, said Michael Juhas, director of housekeeping. Some staff returned April 20, 2020, and the full staff returned on May 18, 2020. 

Workers ordered supplies and installed protective features around campus and inside buildings, like plexiglass barriers at security stations, hand sanitizer stations and signage that says “six feet apart.” At the start of the summer, their main task was disinfecting all campus facilities with electrostatic sprayers to clean efficiently and thoroughly, said Steven Witherspoon, the operations manager for housekeeping. 

On top of normal mechanical operations, like heating, cooling and plumbing the facilities, staff installed touchless bottle filling stations, touchless doors and faucets in bathrooms and hand sanitizer dispensers on every floor in buildings open to students and faculty, Juhas said.  

The housekeeping and grounds departments did not lay off any employees during the pandemic, Juhas said.  

“There was a moment of joy because who wants to work given the circumstances?” said Harold Burnett, a housekeeping staff member. “But after about a month of being home, you’re like, ‘Is there going to be a job to come back to?’” 

Obtaining materials like new air filters, plexiglass and disinfectant cleaning supplies was challenging because of higher demand for these products during the pandemic. 

There were nationwide shortages of disinfectants and sanitizers in March 2020 because of high demand and manufacturers’ inability to obtain materials, Bloomberg reported

Additionally, there was a shortage of MERV-13 air filters, the recommended filters for large indoor spaces to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Fortune reported in July 2020. 

Managerial staff would occasionally order supplies from six or seven different sources, Juhas said.   

Burnett, who has worked at Temple for 14 years, said on top of learning how to install new equipment, he had anxiety about completing it on time so the university met COVID-19 protocol for the start of the fall semester. 

“Early on, it was just like, ‘Man, that’s a lot of new equipment, and we need to, like, the race is running, we need to get right into it, there’s no soft roll into it,’” Burnett said. 

The staff had to adapt to new schedules, social distancing, mask mandates and temperature checks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during work, said Luis Gonzalez, director of operations and maintenance for Temple’s domestic campuses. 

Juhas and Gonzalez worked with the operations and maintenance departments to establish protocol where staff could fully service buildings while minimizing the spread of COVID-19 among staff, like contact tracing, Gonzalez said. 

Normally, the hour lunch break allowed employees to mingle and catch up, but now everyone sits alone in their cars to eat, Burnett said.  

“Even though we are a year into this, there’s just a little uneasiness about sitting in a room with somebody and sharing a meal,” Burnett added. 

Quay Montgomery, a grounds employee who has worked at Temple for 18 years, said he felt safe while working during the summer. 

“We’re here more than we’re home, so it’s like we’re all in a bubble together,” Montgomery said. “They treat us well, they set up where to get tested if need be.” 

Staff are able to be tested at Temple University Hospital, Burnett said. 

With fewer students and faculty on campus, it was easier to complete big projects, like fixing filtration, heating and cooling in buildings, Gonzales said.  

“We’re able to do a lot of work with the stuff you guys don’t see, that makes your learning experience a little better,” Ounan said. 

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