Higher Education Facilities: COVID-19 On Campus, One Year Later

The efficacy of higher education facilities services remains in the spotlight, while budgets tighten.

By Jonathan Peck
From the April 2021 Issue

COVID-19 threw the world a huge curve more than a year ago, and higher education is one sector where this was quite apparent. In March 2020, students across the country left for spring break and in many cases were told not to return. Classes went remote, as did faculty and staff. Seemingly overnight, campuses and higher education facilities were deserted. Facility executives and their teams were drinking from firehoses, consuming as much information as possible about the latest technologies, antiviral products, and best practices for keeping buildings and occupants safe, disinfecting rooms and surfaces, enhancing air quality, and proper use of PPE.

In those early days, it was thought universities and colleges would be somewhat back to normal in the fall of 2020, or at the latest, after winter break. Summer was spent preparing for an expected increasing level of occupancy and implementing new standard operating procedures to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases. But “normal” hasn’t returned. Freshman enrollment dropped 13% and new international enrollment fell by 43%. One year later, dorm occupancy was down in many institutions by as much as 75%.

higher education facilities
(Photo: Getty Images)

As a result, revenue plummeted while expenditures—such as IT infrastructure to support remote classrooms and work models, COVID-19 testing, high-frequency disinfecting, cleaning, and modifications to support HVAC systems—have gone up. The monies available for overall facility services is tighter than ever, while the spotlight on facility teams has never been more intense. Facility employees are doubling down to keep environments clean and occupants safe while tightening purse strings and focusing on communication. Fears have been voiced by faculty, students, and parents who light up social media when spaces aren’t pristine.

The good news is, one year later the industry had a handle on which products, technologies, and best practices are top for keeping spaces effectively distanced, high-touch surfaces sanitized, and air quality clean.

The challenge is knowing where and how to best implement the correct strategy. Any time there’s a school break, finals, holidays, parties, or more, the situation can change rapidly in terms of COVID-19 outbreaks, restrictions regarding on-campus working, learning, and living—and how facility services need to pivot to the next contingency plan.

For instance, classrooms that aren’t in use are closed and taken off the cleaning schedule. That labor is redeployed to increased cleaning and other tasks.

My firm, UG2, provides full integrated facilities management services for nearly two million square feet at a public higher education institution in Manhattan. Actions taken at the onset of the pandemic included:

  • Critical, timely weekly meetings beginning in March 2020, continuing to this day
  • Replacement of air filters to higher rated MERV 13 filters
  • Increased outdoor fresh air intake
  • Review of new technologies to help mitigate viruses and bacteria in ductwork; i.e. bipolar ionization, UV lighting
  • Increased high-touch point surface disinfect to multiple frequencies
  • Implemented UDL app designed by UG2 for cleaning personnel to record when specific locations received disinfection

Best Practices For Higher Education Facilities

1. Keep employees safe. Facility managers have had to rewrite the playbook on how employees work. Best practices now include surveillance testing for COVID-19, daily wellness checks, appropriate PPE, and social distancing. Shifts are staggered, so fewer employees are in breakrooms and locker rooms. Instead of physically proximate teams, there’s more independent work. To ensure jobs are performed well and within COVID-19 guidelines, managers must be able to fine-tune scope and schedules for every staff member.

2. Embrace technology. Technology can help higher education facility services be more proactive and preventative, and drive efficiencies to contain and reduce costs. For instance, those with electronic maintenance management and building automation systems can more effectively service equipment. Technicians can obtain readings during daily rounds by scanning asset quick response (QR) codes or near field communication (NFC) tags via smartphones, as well as log maintenance, cleaning, and disinfection.

Real-time building occupancy and foot traffic data, collected by sensors or discerned via heat maps, can help determine where people congregate. This informs where and when to clean and disinfect surfaces, refill hand sanitizers, remove trash, and more.

In addition, many states are mandating institutions to keep comprehensive disinfection cleaning logs. If a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, they need to trace where the person was and when the rooms they occupied were last disinfected. Rather than filling out paper-based logs, when a facilities employee finishes disinfecting a space or high-touch surface, they use their smartphone to tap an NFC device and a chip embedded in their ID badge.

3. Conduct facility assessments. Many universities and colleges have aging infrastructure and equipment. Reduced revenues will result in changes to capital funding. Facilities executives need to be even more strategic about how and where to recommend investments. For example, an air handler with a 25-year life expectancy may now need to be extended to 35 years. A focus on predictive maintenance using concepts such as vibration analysis and infrared testing, can help to determine the status of the equipment’s components and develop a plan to extend its useful life. For other equipment, it may be acceptable to run-to-fail. With lower enrollment and remote learning possibly lasting for quite a while, some spaces may be shut down and buildings sold. A detailed engineering economic analysis is important to understand and manage buildings as assets. Facilities should also consider energy audits to understand operating costs and savings opportunities.

4. Build in flexibility. Many higher education institutions now think some semblance of “the new normal” won’t return for at least another year.

September 2021 will be telling. Will enrollment drop again or head back to pre-COVID-19 levels? Will some classes never return to in-person learning? Will COVID-19 vaccinations help create a new, more acceptable, and comfortable normal? Some degree of uncertainty has always been part and parcel of facility services. One thing is certain however: more change is coming. Facility services executives need to have sound emergency management and continuity of business plans.

  • Implement a communications plan that makes it easy to communicate daily with all stakeholders.
  • Put technology and reporting systems in place that provide the data needed to inform decision-making, quickly adapt, and accurately assess operations.
  • Regularly revisit emergency preparedness plans and make sure all resources, including supplies and equipment, are readily available.
  • Ensure you have skilled facility staff and the ability to scale them up or down as budgets and situations change, perhaps by partnering with an outsourced facility services expert.

Our job as facility service executives has always been to ensure pristine, safe, and efficiently run facilities. At a time when so much is uncertain, a well-maintained campus can go a long way to providing the comfort and reassurance everyone needs to return to campus.

higher education facilitiesPeck is senior vice president, operations for UG2, a national facilities services company headquartered in Boston, MA. With more than 30 years of facility services expertise, Peck oversees operations for UG2 business in the Northeast and Tri-State regions.

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