How the facilities department prepared for a return to campus

(August 27, 2020) – Jim Waechter is glad to see people back on campus again. As director of facilities at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, Waechter and his team of roughly 55 employees have been roaming the sparsely populated hallways and breezeways of the buildings along Bayboro Harbor, which in the months since the coronavirus shutdown have felt something like a ghost town.

“To be honest, we can get a lot done when people aren’t here,” Waechter said. “We’re actually more effective at doing behind-the-scenes facilities work when the campus isn’t occupied. But we also don’t feel whole when the campus is devoid of activity. It was fine for a few days, but after that we were longing for the resumption of normalcy.”

Waechter and his team were among the first to return to campus after the coronavirus pandemic halted the routine lives of many Americans. The team worked remotely for a few weeks in March, during which time its members completed virtual training seminars related to coronavirus safety and enhanced cleaning practices. They returned to campus at the beginning of April.

Over the next few months, the facilities department worked hard to prepare campus for a hopeful return to in-person courses for fall 2020. Some of the work the department has done is obvious. Waechter and his team have installed 80 plexiglass shields at high-traffic locations, set up five hand sanitizer vending machines and delivered thousands of personal protective equipment to sites across the campus. The department has also placed thousands of stickers in public locations to remind students, faculty and staff about hand washing, elevator capacities and pedestrian traffic flows.

“We need to thank every individual member of our facilities staff for the incredible work done to prepare our campus with everything needed to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor of USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “After we went into remote delivery of classes and services last March, these ‘unsung heroes’ continued to come on campus to build the physical environment that allowed students and employees to return.”

Some safety measures taken by the facilities department are less than obvious. For example, Waechter and his team have increased the frequency of filter changes in the campus’s HVAC systems and increased the amount of fresh air being introduced into buildings in order to maximize ventilation rates. Meanwhile, touch points such as elevator buttons, railings, door handles and faucets are receiving additional sanitization.

“The work of the custodial staff on this campus today is dramatically different than it was six months ago,” Waechter said. “The jobs of our custodians have changed to ensure added safety.”

For Waechter, who oversees a variety of teams including landscaping, custodial, emergency management, maintenance and construction, the coronavirus has posed a number of challenges, including coordinating efforts, managing resources and making decisions amid a constant flux in information.

“We’ve had a boat load of information coming our way,” he said. “The greatest challenge was managing and translating that information into actionable items.”

Still, Waechter felt equipped, both literally and figuratively, to address those challenges head on. “I have been absolutely overwhelmed at the level of support we’ve received throughout this process,” he said.