When St. John’s University students arrive on campus for the Fall 2020 semester, they will see up close the physical transformation of campus facilities that took place after the University transitioned to remote instruction and a remote workforce during the early days of the COVID-19 public health crisis back in mid-March.
For months, the Return to Campus Task Force—with the feedback and involvement from a broad cross-section of University personnel—has been working to plan and prepare for a safe return to campus. They have closely followed public health guidelines to encourage best practices for reducing the spread of COVID-19.
“Summertime is normally when the University completes major capital improvement projects,” observed Brian Baumer, Associate Vice President for Campus Facilities and Services. “Summer 2020 saw that, and more, as much of our work revolved around retrofitting and reconfiguring campus space to support a safer living and learning environment for the entire St. John’s community during the ongoing pandemic.”
The plan for the gradual return to campus has been implemented; there is a steady increase in regular on-campus operations, along with a phased-in return of the University workforce. Modifications of campus space to promote and ensure social distancing, enhanced cleaning, daily employee health screening, wearing a face covering, instructional signage emphasizing the importance of proper handwashing and sanitizing, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and social distancing are just some of the University-wide efforts being made to maintain the highest levels of teaching, learning, and support services.
Several shared spaces, including most residence hall lounges, will be closed for the Fall 2020 semester. Other common area spaces have been reconfigured to accommodate and encourage social distancing, with fewer chairs, floor markings, one-way traffic markers, and other directional signs to promote best practices. Additional hand sanitizer stations have been installed throughout campus, and protective plexiglass shields can now be found at locations where it may be difficult to maintain social distancing.
The University has an inventory of cleaning supplies and PPE, and all custodial staff have been retrained on best cleaning practices and protocols in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York State Department of Health guidelines. In addition to routine cleaning, a daily disinfection team and a rapid response team is at the ready to address high-volume touchpoints.
Several measures have been taken to reduce the spread of the virus through heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. HVAC systems have gone through a complete maintenance cycle to ensure they run optimally, and all filters have been upgraded to a denser material to remove more particulates from the air, including viral particulates. Also, more fresh air will be brought into buildings as outside temperatures allow.
“We made substantial changes to the academic calendar, increased investment in instructional classroom technology, and modified the classroom learning environment to create greater flexibility for the St. John’s community—all in an effort to optimize the safety of those who choose to live and learn in person on campus,” stated Simon G. Møller, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, who co-chaired the Return to Campus Task Force. Most St. John’s classrooms now have cameras and microphones to allow faculty to capture their lectures and discussions and post them online, providing students with greater flexibility of access to instructional material.
During the spring, an audit of campus classroom space was completed; individual classrooms had their capacity reduced and were reconfigured to enable maximum social distancing. All campus elevators now have reduced occupancy and the elevators in Sullivan Hall and the School of Law were upgraded over the summer.
To enhance the safety of dining services, all dining facilities have reconfigured seating and queueing areas to maintain six feet of social distance, plexiglass partitions at cashier stations, and mobile and cashless ordering systems in some locations to reduce lines. The University has also eliminated self-service food options and shifted to single-serving condiments. All food service employees will wear appropriate PPE and participate in a daily wellness screening that includes temperature checks. Due to lower occupancy requirements, the Faculty Club and the Red Storm Diner will not be open during the fall semester.
To reduce density in the residence halls while still meeting student needs, the University eliminated triple and quad occupancy rooms and added new guest restrictions.
Residence Life is hosting multiple fall move-in days to ensure appropriate social distancing throughout the move-in process and continues to work individually with students who indicate an underlying health condition on their housing applications and placements. Members of the St. John’s community who test positive for COVID-19 are required to self-isolate per the latest guidelines from health authorities and their health-care providers. Employees, students who commute, and resident students who live within a reasonable distance of campus will self-isolate at home; resident students who are unable to return home will stay in St. Vincent Hall, which is now restricted only for this purpose. In partnership with NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, students who are ill or who test positive will be monitored by a COVID-19 Care Team, who will check in with these students daily to monitor their health.
“A vital piece of our Return to Campus plan is the ‘Johnnies Care Compact,’ a statement of mutual commitment to community health and behavioral standards that every student, faculty member, administrator, and staff member will follow,” observed Joseph E. Oliva, Esq. ’91CBA, ’94L, Vice President for Administration, Secretary, and General Counsel, who co-chaired the Return to Campus Task Force. “We have a 150-year tradition of overcoming challenges together, and at this moment—perhaps more than ever before—we as a community must rely on each other to follow public health guidelines for the protection of all.”