Essential workers keep a quiet campus going for residents who have nowhere else to go
In a typical spring, Montclair State University bustles with energy, full of thousands of people who live and play, create and debate, research and work on campus.
But this spring, it’s silent.
“Everything feels different,” observes University Police Officer Jaison Frazier, of the near-empty campus. “With the coronavirus outbreak, all of that has stopped overnight.”
With classes moved online through the rest of the semester and summer, the majority of Montclair State students are completing courses from their homes, and nearly all employees are working remotely. The University has all but closed campus, save for a few buildings, including the health center, the Heights and Village residence halls, and take-away meals at Sam’s Place, for the approximately 450 students with nowhere else to go.
Heralded as heroes in cities and towns across the country, essential workers on the front lines in this crisis include health care professionals, police and safety workers, grocery store clerks and delivery drivers. While most employees are working remotely, some jobs can only be done in person.
The same holds true for Montclair State University, where essential workers are preparing meals, cleaning and disinfecting, providing safety, security and care to students. They are food service workers, residence assistants, housekeepers, health care providers, police, EMTs and more – people who continue to come to campus day after day to ensure students are safe, sheltered, nourished and healthy.
Those on the campus front lines say they don’t see themselves as heroic – they’re just doing their jobs – and are taking precautions while at it.
“To me, the heroes are the people who are out there – the people working and dealing with, really, the unknown,” says University Police Chief Paul Cell. “With this pandemic, more than ever, people are putting their lives on the line for others.”
The Nurses Are In
Like some of those still working on campus, Barbara Ackerson, a staff nurse in the University Health Center, says those on campus feel a responsibility to students. “We want to be here,” says Ackerson. “We want to be here for the students. We want to meet their needs. We don’t feel like heroes. We’re just doing what we do.”
The University Health Center remains open, but the majority of appointments are done by phone.
The nurses are hearing from students who have health concerns and questions about immunizations or are worried about COVID-19. As usual, they give out medical advice and medication for other conditions.
For anyone who presents moderate-to-severe COVID-19 symptoms, nurses advise them to go to an off-campus medical facility for testing.
No matter the issue, students are not allowed to just walk-in. They have to call ahead so when they arrive there aren’t other people in the waiting room at the same time.
“We’ve come up with solutions to do whatever we can to keep the students well, to keep them getting the medications they need, to answer their questions, to alleviate some of their fears,” Ackerson says.
Volunteering for the Front Lines
Maintaining social and physical distance is being practiced throughout campus. For the students who are staying on campus, it has changed their way of life.
“A lot of their social support is gone,” says Kevin Schafer, associate director of Housing Services. “They can’t connect with their friends. They can’t bring friends in.”
Resident advisors, like Brianna Kovach and Alisa Hannah, volunteered to stay with students through the crisis and are checking in on their mental and physical well-being and answering their questions.
“I was given the choice to stay or move but I decided to stay and help out,” says Kovach, a senior majoring in Family Science and Human Development. Noting a silver lining to the outbreak, she adds, “It’s made me truly realize that the little things in life are precious.”
Over the past few weeks, the staff in Residence Life and Housekeeping have helped move out the vast majority of students who live on campus, while those who remain moved into two main buildings, most with their own living quarters and bathrooms. During the moves, residential staff taped floors with lines to help maintain a six-foot-apart distance.
“Personally, I protect myself by taking care of my body,” Hannah says. “Of course I keep my hands clean and I’m more mindful about touching my face, but I also detox my body with natural teas, keep my body well nourished with vitamins, and stay active by exercising often.”
She keeps busy with her online classes and work. “It has been hard not being able to hang out with my friends in person, but I combat that by staying in touch with my circles over the phone and with social media. Whenever I feel stress overall from this pandemic, I cope by reading my Bible and practicing self care.”
‘This is Home’
As of April 6, about 450 students were still calling campus home, a little less than 10 percent of the usual residential population.
“The old adage of ‘your home away from home’ has changed,” Schafer says. For the students who are living on campus during the crisis, “either their original home is not a safe place or they have no home but here.”
For that reason, it’s important that they feel safe. Adds Executive Chef of Residence Dining Carlos Mohammed, “In this uncertain time, these students need to know there are people here to care
It’s also important for front line workers to feel safe. To protect his 40 officers, Chief Cell separates squads, sanitizing the vehicles and equipment between shifts. Most of all, he says, “We still have to maintain our duties as police officers. Our patrol function is still the same. But if we respond to a call, we have to take measures to protect ourselves.”
“We have to put on a mask, gloves and safety goggles,” he says. “We didn’t have to do that before.”
Officer Frazier, who has a wife and 15-month-old daughter at home, feels a personal connection to Montclair State students and their safety. He was once one himself, earning a bachelor’s in Family and Child Services in 2004 and a master’s in Higher Education Leadership in 2017.
He takes care to follow the precautions. “You’ve got to keep a level head,” he says.
‘Stay Apart and Stay Strong’
In buildings that remain open, housekeepers are wiping down every potential place where a hand could touch, says Gena Coffey, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety.
“Honestly, the housekeepers are among the biggest heroes here. Without them, without us knowing that they’re out there cleaning and disinfecting everything, nobody’s going anywhere,” Coffey says.
The essential staff are regularly updated and encouraged to ask questions. “I want to make sure that they’re being heard. That’s the biggest thing,” Coffey says.
This pandemic is not the first time University essential personnel have stepped up during a crisis. Dora Lim, a resident district manager of campus dining, recalls working in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. “It’s a big campus, but we’re very tight knit,” she says.
But the need to physically distance from one another is a stark difference between the two catastrophes, says Chief Cell. “During 9/11 we were coming together to find strength and here we need to stay apart and stay strong.”