Campus Heroes Keep Tufts Running Through the Pandemic
Showing up during a pandemic wasn’t in anyone’s job description. But for more than a year, hundreds of Tufts employees have been reporting to work on the four campuses, keeping the university running along with their colleagues working from home. Meet some of the members of the Tufts community who have helped Tufts confront and overcome challenges most never could have imagined.
Utility worker, Facilities
Years at Tufts: 14
My job as a groundsman wasn’t affected greatly by the pandemic, simply because I already work outdoors. We went on as normal, with some social distancing measures, face masks, and washing hands.
But events stopped, so we no longer had any work to do helping set up for functions. I really enjoy working the service side; you get to know the community in a more intimate way, the professors and the staff. Without that, it became a more impersonal kind of job, which was pretty shocking for me. I like engaging with people.
When the students returned in the fall, it was another new norm, with new protocols. The students were really responsible—I don’t think I ever saw one student outside without a mask.
Multimedia support specialist, Tufts Technology Services
Years at Tufts: 1
I was a new employee starting to get acclimated, and then the COVID crisis began. When the campus closed they still needed some TTS people who could be here on campus for emergency operations. I wasn’t really worried about being here, since almost everyone else was leaving. I was posted at Ballou doing daytime support.
I had been living with friends who were in the high-risk category, and I didn’t want to impose on them. The university offered the chance to stay on campus. I moved into Bush Hall; I turned out to be the only one in that big building. Very often I would trudge up the Hill and be the only person in Ballou during the day, and be alone in Bush at night. But it was quiet and peaceful.
Once classes were over in the spring, we moved into prep for the fall, and a lot of our team came back to campus, to make adjustments to classrooms where students would be learning in person as well as online, and to install new equipment. There was an enormous amount of work, but it was exhilarating to have some people around, even though we were keeping our distance.
The whole university, within a matter of days, moved from teaching in classrooms to teaching virtually. When that decision was made, we had to come up with solutions to help people do that. To me, the story of this past year was the way people were able to meet the challenge.
Chef manager, Retail and Catering
Years at Tufts: 7
In the spring, we had to create new ways to feed students who could not get home or would be placed in isolation or quarantine. We had to make sure the meals were hot and appealing when delivered to the students’ doors, and decide what food to offer, how to package it, and how to accommodate a variety of dietary restrictions. I collaborated with colleagues across Tufts Dining. We also got input from students.
Dr. Michael Jordan, the university’s infection control director, said it would be good to have chicken noodle soup, so I put that on the menu. It has become our most popular item.
Laura Beth Reese
Studio operations manager
SMFA at Tufts
Years at SMFA: 8
After COVID hit, all SMFA classes were taught remotely. Students still had the option to use the studios with a reservation system. We wanted to give students a common foundation of supplies, materials, and tools, regardless of their location.
For the fall semester, we assembled custom kits, which contained anywhere from one item to 60 items. We either handed out or mailed more than 1,000 kits to 600 students. We shipped to China, Korea, Brazil, Nicaragua, Japan, Canada, and a lot of cities in the U.S. The equipment ranged from cameras to hammers to paint, canvas, and ink. With so many supply chain disruptions, we had to be creative about where we sourced items.
For the spring, we’re giving students more choice. If faculty want them to have equipment like cameras or microphones, we’re lending that out. For other supplies, we’re giving students Rhino Bucks, the SMFA version of Jumbo Cash, to buy supplies at our art store or Blick Art Materials. They can both ship to international students.
The students have adapted well and quickly. Teaching art online may not be ideal, but by being creative, faculty, staff, and students have risen to the occasion and figured out how to make it work.
Years at Tufts: 2
In March, we start spring cleanup: mowing, planting, mulching beds. The modifications we made were for keeping our normal workday socially distanced and safe. How many guys could we transport in a vehicle? Where would we take breaks? There was a lot of uncertainty, and folks didn’t know what to expect. Hard to say it was business as usual, but as much as possible we tried to keep things on a regular course as far as maintenance of the grounds.
When nobody was on campus, it was easier for us to get our work done, since it wasn’t as crowded as usual. But after a time, we started to see more traffic, as the campus became almost a community green space, with students, Tufts people, and people from Somerville and Medford taking advantage of the campus to get outside and have some socially distanced activities. We kept the campus looking, as much as possible, as it usually looks.
In the fall, it seemed a bit more normal, having more people on campus. There was still a degree of uncertainty, but we’d had more time to adapt to our circumstances. We took it one day at a time.
Postdoctoral scholar, Maguire Lab, Department of Neuroscience
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Years at Tufts: 2
There’s a misconception that scientists like to work alone. Lab research is super-collaborative, and I find the distancing is taking a toll. I’m a social person; there are watercooler chats about our projects, and there’s that kind of feedback about our projects that we get from casual conversation that we no longer have. We need that spontaneity.
After the labs were shut down for two months, we got the go-ahead to return in June, with reduced density. I study how stress can worsen epilepsy. I used to talk with friends from different labs; now we have to be aware who is in each space.
The pandemic has thrust science into the spotlight. With the vaccine development process, the public is starting to see what the scientific process is like, to at least begin to understand what it takes to do science and to see where our government funding goes.
Health sciences campus
Years at Tufts: 42
Facilities staff members are considered essential, so we were required to be on campus. We were pretty busy. Bill O’Neill and I were approached to come up with some type of solution for the dental clinics, so they could continue their dental care. We met with Dr. Robert Amato, the assistant dean for postgraduate clinical affairs, and went through all the floors figuring out how to isolate the operatories. We fabricated barriers out of Lexan polycarbonate, which is a little more durable than plexiglass. We had support from the painters and other utility and maintenance people. This was a group effort, not just the two of us.
We’d start at 4:30 in the morning; we had to get going early to be able to clean up by 9 and get out of the way. Dr. Amato met with us every morning at about 6.
We knew the dental school was not going to be able to open the clinics and teaching areas unless something was done. We contributed toward that, and made people feel more comfortable coming to work. I definitely get a little pleasure from that—I feel a lot of personal pride.
Assistant dean for student enrollment and registrar
School of Medicine
Years at Tufts: 19
When H1N1 emerged [in 2009] we developed an emergency response plan, so we dusted that off, updated it, and have put it in play.
We graduated the M20 class a month early; we had to get 200 diplomas reprinted and figure out how to get them to the students. It was nerve-racking—these are precious documents. Working in our conference room, socially distanced, we were like little Christmas elves, putting them in nice covers, coordinating with the mailroom, but they arrived safely.
I have had the rare fortune of getting to see students in person. Because we are one of the few offices open at TUSM, we’ve become somewhat like an Amazon warehouse, coordinating distribution of books and materials—our conference room is stocked full of PPE. Our office is a little messier; it’s quieter; it’s certainly strange not having the fourth floor [of 145 Harrison Ave.] full of students. We have remained team-focused and student-centered, but how we deliver is a little different.
Multimedia support specialist, Tufts Technology Services
Years at Tufts: 3
I’m in the AV group. We’re the front line of the university, in terms of technology. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was mainly responsible for helping faculty set up for remote teaching. If they lived nearby, I would go to their houses, if they were OK with that, and help them there.
I was also in the AV department to receive shipments of new equipment to be set up in classrooms for remote and hybrid teaching. Once the equipment was installed, I would go test it to make sure it worked as intended. Overall, our temporary technology setup went beyond expectations, which made our faculty clients happy.
I miss having more interactions with faculty and students. I was glad to be one of the people on campus when most of my group was working from home—nothing makes me happier than going to work.
Health sciences campus
Years at Tufts: 41
We put up clear safety barriers in the lobbies, reception areas, and all the common areas throughout the Boston health sciences campus. At the dental school, we put up barriers on about 75 percent of the approximately 300 operatories. That took about 800 sheets of Lexan polycarbonate, plus maple and aluminum. Those products were hard to come by at the beginning; they were sold out everywhere, like lots of items across the country. We didn’t stop—we did this job for probably about six months straight, every workday, all day.
Every dental operatory had to have its own unique installation. Although they might look similar, we had to take measurements for every single panel. They all had to wind up 18 inches below the ceiling—that was standard throughout the university.
For the most part, things have gone back to normal, or as normal as they can be. When they started bringing in more patients and bringing back faculty, students, and staff, everyone was really happy to see the work that had been done. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped and said, “We appreciate what you did.”
Nurse practitioner, Health Services
Medford/Somerville campus and SMFA at Tufts
Years at Tufts: 8
We are the first point of contact when students test positive. When we make that phone call, we get a range of reactions. Some folks are genuinely shocked, but some have had a sneaking suspicion, maybe some symptoms, or a contact in their circle.
We begin the process of determining what’s going on in their life, how they’re feeling, what we need to factor in to be safe for themselves and the community. We become the main person who calls every day through the course of their isolation. The frequency of testing at Tufts has helped us. Sometimes we can get folks in care before they are feeling really unwell. We can start the isolation process for the sake of the community.
I’ve been here for a number of situations like flu epidemics. This is a level up from what we’ve had to deal with. In the beginning we had to modify the Health Services building and split up our team so that we weren’t all here at the same time. Talk about emergencies bringing out the true nature of a team—we’re very tight; I feel very supported.
Library assistant, Ginn Library
The Fletcher School
Years at Tufts: 5
The biggest immediate challenge was making the course reserves successful. We hold books behind the desk that are not available in electronic form. We had to go through all the syllabi and find what needed to be scanned in, and execute all the scanning within a week. There were so many materials that students wouldn’t have had access to otherwise; we wanted to keep it as seamless as possible.
For the fall semester, our building was repurposed for undergraduate classes as Fletcher classes moved online. The library was the only place dedicated for Fletcher students to come and study. To make the semester successful, we had to operate a safe physical space, and support online endeavors.
There was a lot to process; it took a while for the humor to come back. I love singing the Brady Bunch theme on Zoom meetings. There’s a good deal of “we’re all in this together.”
School of Dental Medicine
Years at Tufts: 23
When the pandemic started, we stopped taking new patients, so I moved from my usual clinic to the emergency clinic, which was the only one open. It was so different, when the norm for us is seeing more than 600 patients a day, to go down to 25 a day.
I worked on the first floor as patients entered the building. They would get screened for COVID-19 symptoms, and I would make sure they had an appointment scheduled and direct them to the emergency clinic. My priorities shifted to ensuring the health and safety of the Tufts community by enforcing the recommended COVID-19 protocols. The patients were very understanding about the new procedures. There were days we had a few who didn’t want to wear a mask, but most of them followed the guidelines. They knew we were there to protect them and everything we did was for their safety.
We all just had to adjust and adapt to the changes. I work with so many amazing people. All the people who work behind the scenes made it easier for us—I didn’t stand alone, there were plenty of people behind us. We’re seeing more of our regular patients now, and it’s so encouraging to see them come in, even though I can’t see their smiles.
Head of Metadata Services, Tisch Library
Years at Tufts: 4 (plus 2 years previously, 1987–1989)
Remember when you would go to the library and look in the card catalogue? My job is like writing the cards—a metadata librarian makes sure there is an accurate description of all the things the library acquires. I help people find the information they are looking for, whether it’s a book on the shelf, an object in our archives, or an electronic database. When I’m in the library now, I’m alone a lot more, since we’re trying to keep the office depopulated. I’ve been doing a lot more of handling physical materials, unpacking boxes, since we haven’t had student workers to do that.
When we reopened the library to students in September, we had to free up more space for distanced seating. We weeded out a lot of atlases, outdated materials, removed some large things from the collections. Now students have to reserve a seat instead of wandering in; that makes it easier for contact tracing. That has meant a lot less traffic in general. Even though we pivoted and have been ordering vastly more e-books than before, we’re still dealing with a lot of physical material. The interlibrary loan and course reserves are still very busy. One of the biggest challenges is not having my co-workers around.
We’re also working hard to make sure that all the libraries that are part of the Tisch umbrella are serviced: the SMFA library, Ginn Library at The Fletcher School, the Lilly Music Library; we’re about to begin handling the library at Cummings veterinary school. Those students have needs, and we have to make sure they are met.
Associate director of residential operations, Residential Life and Learning
Medford/Somerville campus and SMFA at Tufts
Years at Tufts: 3
The move-out when the university had to close was very logistically challenging. Our RA and graduate staff are students, so they were required to leave. That left us without about 130 people who would normally help with closing. We did the best possible given the constraints.
A very helpful part was our vendor partners, such as the UPS Store. They were able to get on campus fairly quickly. They had the students leave boxes in their rooms and scheduled later pickups for shipping or storage.
Then my team was involved in planning how to make fall move-in work, how many students we could have on campus, and what we needed to do to keep everyone safe.
A lot of us have been going nonstop. In addition to the challenges related to the virus, we also manage the normal day-to-day things that occur in a residential life program with 77 dorms and other spaces, housing about 3,900 students. My team is all focused on how to help.
Lead dining customer service assistant, Carmichael Dining
Years at Tufts: 10
The students are no longer allowed to serve themselves; we put the food in takeout containers. I feel like we’ve lost a lot of our customer service capabilities, our personal touch. When we had students in line, we could chat them up and find out who they really are. I miss being able to be personal with the students. Now the students place their food order online. We prepare the food for them to pick up. The less touching the better right now.
When you sign on for this job, you know you’re an essential person. Even when everyone else is hunkering down, we’re stepping up. These students are number one, and we’re here to feed them and take care of them and be their home away from home. The pandemic is just another bump in the road. Tufts has done an amazing job with the protocols and I feel very safe coming to work. We have an awesome team; we take things as they come. A pandemic? Ha! We’ve got this.
Captain, Tufts University Police Department
Years at Tufts: 20
TUPD operates 24/7, 365, and we all have to report to the campuses. Even one employee testing positive for COVID, or being placed on close-contact quarantine, has a significant impact. Supervisors spend several hours contact tracing and arranging for shift coverage in addition to their regular responsibilities. Because I’m an instructor and advisor for EMS, I was able to help acquire PPE for student EMTs and police officers.
Typically, move-out is gradual and there isn’t a need for extra staffing. But when we had to condense a three-week move-out plan into three days, officers were needed to assist with traffic and parking, and access to buildings. We had to maintain the safety of people who remained on campus.
With so many empty buildings we had to do more detailed patrols. Our staff assisted with delivering meals during the onboarding process in the fall, and with setting up security when the mods opened. Especially in the beginning of the fall, we received calls about people not wearing masks, not social distancing, students having gatherings.
Communicating so much through Zoom, I miss the human interaction. Our officers have missed saying good morning and seeing many of the people we normally see.
Associate director of campus life
Years at Tufts: 4
When the pandemic hit, we pivoted to support online programming. In the spring, that included QuaranStream livestream concerts and QuaranTone livestream fitness classes. In September, new and returning students attended a virtual student organizations fair, where they could jump from table to table just as they would have in person. When students picked up their meals at Thanksgiving, they received cards for Zoom Bingo. We had more than 1,000 students participating—when they won, they could unmute themselves to jump and yell “Bingo.”
During the fall semester, we had quite a few virtual grab-and-go events, where we gave students bags with items on different themes: the election, stress management, Elephant Appreciation Day. When it was still warm enough, we did some in-person programming within the 10-person guidelines. Those filled up superfast; people wanted to get together in some form of social space—anything with any resemblance to normalcy was in high demand.
Some of our student organizations that would normally have traveled off campus got really creative about bringing virtual community to the campus and the cities of Medford and Somerville. The student music group Public Harmony, which performs in places like nursing homes, recorded performances for public access TV. That’s an example of something we might continue after the pandemic ends. And the students have been so appreciative of the work that we’re all doing—they don’t take it for granted.
Senior veterinary technician, Foster Hospital for Small Animals
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Years at Tufts: 6
I supervise critical care, and we never close, 365 days a year. I learned we were going to be going down to essential staff, emergencies only, in mid-March. It was a huge struggle—we weren’t closing; we were still expected to staff the schedule 24/7. Everybody had the mentality that we just had to get through two weeks; then we realized things were not going to change for a long time.
I call this the puppy pandemic. Everyone went out and got a dog. The shelters emptied out, but we were busier than ever. People went out and got chickens; chicken medicine became a big part of pandemic life.
Students were not allowed back in until close to the summer. We had to start getting creative. We had to come up with more guidelines for emergencies, and a nurse-to-patient ratio. We did a lot of phone triage.
We all got into this to help animals. When we get a phone call and we have to say we can’t help you, it’s very difficult for us. With the students and more staff back now, being able to help more pets is a huge relief.
Senior technical projects manager, Digital Productions, Tufts Technology Services
Health sciences, SMFA at Tufts, and Cummings campuses
Years at Tufts: 23
The Digital Productions team had a big job with the virtual commencements. After that there was a huge need to enable our spaces with Zoom capability quickly. Our focus was keeping the continuity for the students.
At Grafton, we created an impromptu area for lecture recording. I went out to the veterinary clinic in Woodstock, Connecticut, to install a 65-inch TV screen so students could be distanced and continue classes.
At the SMFA, I created movable carts with cameras and recording units with Echo 360 and some additional carts with cameras on an arm that could be repositioned. It allows them to get right over the space and do Zooms of metalworking, painting, and pottery. This model was also applied to a couple of carts for the gross anatomy lab at the School of Medicine. We also outfitted conference rooms for the Infectious Disease Unit at Tufts Medical Center so they could perform rounds without people being crowded together.
I try to be creative; I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades. I’m there to provide whatever the faculty and students need and make sure it’s easy to use and it works. That’s the big key—it has to work.