As total Covid-19 cases in the United States topped six million late last month, thousands of students from all over the world returned to Middlebury in anticipation of a largely in-person fall semester. Staff members’ experiences have varied greatly across departments since the college announced its fall plans in June and subsequently put in place a hiring freeze. Many staff now deal with uncertainty and the looming threat of furloughs should students be evacuated prematurely this semester.
Many community members, including staff, feared that students’ return would bring the same infection spikes — and resulting campus closures — that have plagued colleges and universities across the country.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Katie Gillespie, associate director for research compliance and a representative on the Staff Council. “The test results that have come back are very promising.”
Following Day Zero and Day Seven testing, just two students have tested positive for Covid-19. Despite the encouraging signs, many worry that cases will eventually spike.
“I am concerned a little bit about once the initial phase is over,” said Amy Holbrooke, the economics department academic coordinator. “Then things start to loosen up a little bit, and they start leaving campus or sneaking their friends in.”
Some staff expect the college to close well before Thanksgiving break, according to Tim Parsons, the college horticulturist. Parsons served as president of Staff Council last year and is a current Staff Council representative.
“Everyone feels like they’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation,” he said. “They’re not really expecting it to last.”
Staff worry that a sizable outbreak could result in students being sent home, leading to a partial refund of students’ room and board fees and putting their Covid-19 pay protections in jeopardy.
“Some people are worried about what might happen if we do have an outbreak,” Gillespie said. “We’ve been told they’re going to reevaluate in October, and if students are sent home and they have to refund room and board, then the furloughs happen.”
Amid concerns, many staff members are glad to see students in person again. “I am happy that the students are back for sure,” said Custodial Supervisor Dan Celik. “Every student I speak to is so appreciative to be back and makes sure to thank me/us for what we have been doing to the campus … I hope we can be a model for other institutions.”
Safety and clarity first
Many staff members were happy with their new work environment’s protections, including barriers, personal protective equipment and social distancing, all provided or mandated by the college.
“I think they’re really trying to make it a safe work environment,” Holbrooke said, adding that the college has encouraged staff who can work remotely to do so.
Staff also feel more positive about the administration’s communication, which they believe has improved since March, according to Parsons. Many have also found the administration to be especially receptive regarding concerns about workplace safety, Gillespie said.
Gillespie cited an incident in which a constituent of hers felt uncomfortable being scheduled to work at the entry testing site. In response, administrators offered information about safety measures at the site and the option to meet with Medical Director Mark Peluso. This, along with conversations with students who completed testing, reassured the staff member, according to Gillespie.
One longtime dining employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution, echoed the reserved praise of the administration’s handling of the return to campus. “I think the administration is doing that best they can, with having students come back. Was it the right decision to have on campus classes? It is such a double edged sword, but we can only hope for the best,” they said.
“There is more work for the rest of us to cover”
Still, many staff members in departments like Dining and Custodial have seen their workload increase since students first began arriving on Aug. 18. New safety measures along with preexisting staffing shortages have left employees feeling the strain.
“From our work standpoint in Dining, it has been a real challenge,” the anonymous dining staff member said. “The procedure for feeding (students) now requires a substantial amount of time because we just don’t have the people to pull it off in a normal paced timeframe.”
All hiring has been frozen until July 2021. As some dining staff retired, left for new jobs or faced childcare issues, the anonymous employee estimated each dining hall had lost at least two staff members. The employee noted how this has increased work for the remaining staff members in conjunction with the new practice of packaging students’ meals in to-go boxes.
On top of added Covid-19 processes, as the majority of students moved in, entered room quarantine and had all meals delivered to their door, dining staff received jumbled communication on how many meals to prepare.
“There were last minute changes and shifts on the numbers,” the anonymous dining staff member said. “We had to pivot and shift gears constantly for four straight days because the numbers and situation kept shifting. It may not have been anyone’s real fault, but people feel there’d better be a pretty hardy debrief after this is over, especially if we have to go through this again in January for spring semester.”
The custodial department has also been heavily impacted by the increased workload.
“They’re slammed, they’re down a lot of positions,” Parsons said. “[Custodial] had to expand some of their shifts.”
Custodial reorganized their work schedule to accommodate cleaning classrooms and implementing the extra round of disinfection, Celik said.
“We now have shifts that work around the clock, seven days per week,” he said. “We do have to get most of our work in the residence hall completed between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., which has posed some time challenges. But, as we learn the routines, we are getting more efficient at it.”
In an Aug. 28 email to most of the Senior Leadership Group and a lengthy list of staff and administrators, Dean of Students Derek Doucet asked for help to “make sure students stay spread out as they line up and get their food” and attached a sign-up sheet. The email was soon passed along to many staff members across departments.
To fill in the staffing gaps, staff, coaches, faculty and administrators have been enforcing social distancing in dining lines.
Following confusion among staff regarding whether hours spent enforcing distancing in dining halls would be eligible for overtime pay, Karen Miller, vice president for human resources and chief risk officer, specified in a Sept. 3 email that enforcing distancing in dining hall lines is treated as volunteer work and will not count as overtime. Staff eligible for overtime — mostly hourly workers — cannot volunteer.
As staff members face additional pressures at work, the complications of home life create an evermore challenging situation. Childcare is a source of stress for many staff members: those with children are particularly overscheduled as they attempt to balance work with homeschooling and childcare, Gillespie said.
Schools in Addison County will be using a phased approach to their fall semester and will begin in-person class two days a week, although that is subject to change based on Covid-19 transmission both in the county and statewide.
While some staff members worry about the potential for an outbreak of Covid-19 as on-campus restrictions are relaxed in phases two and three, others fret about the polarizing nature that the college’s return has had to the town of Middlebury. In the weeks prior to students’ return, there were increasing calls by local community members and college employees for the college to switch to remote learning in anticipation of a Covid-19 outbreak.
Parsons only sees one way out. “We need to really band together and treat this like a community problem and have this not be so polarizing.”