Uncharted Waters

Abeer Mustafa and Val Sample, September 22, 2020

There is no manual for dealing with COVID-19, but Abeer Mustafa and Val Sample have done a remarkable job responding to the impact on campus housing. 

Abeer Mustafa and Val Sample, West Campus Housing

“The commitment to UTC is stronger than the fear.” In her own words, that’s the biggest takeaway for Abeer Mustafa about the response to COVID-19 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “People, as scared as they are, they still show up,” says Mustafa, associate vice chancellor for student affairs since July 2018. “It’s a great feeling about who I work with and what this campus means to me.” 

With campus housing among Mustafa’s areas of oversight, she most often works with Valara Sample, director of Housing and Residence Life. “COVID is in a category all by itself, mainly because there is no real manual for how we manage COVID,” says Sample, who moved from Mississippi to Chattanooga to join UTC in 2005. “I’ve been here when we renovated buildings and when we built West Campus (housing).  

“I didn’t have any experience in construction, but there’s manuals for that and co-workers with experience. COVID, it’s totally different from anything else, and every one of my colleagues and I have all had to keep trying to figure it out. I’ve been engaged in COVID all spring, summer and fall semester. What I’ve learned is that even my best plan is probably not going to be good enough because there’s always a change you couldn’t foresee.” 

Both Mustafa and Sample are big believers in planning. “When they told us (in March), ‘Send everybody home,’ we’re like, ‘How do you logistically send people home?’ Mustafa says. “Algorithm, my favorite word.” 

“Incredibly,” Mustafa says, from March through August, “no residential students and no maintenance or custodial staff contracted nor tested positive for COVID-19.” 

She and Sample developed algorithms—or sequential processes—for students retrieving belongings, move-out paperwork, cleaning and reconfiguring residential and common spaces. “It was like: How do you clean, consolidate and then re-clean?” Mustafa says. “We had to ask the students to just leave behind everything they didn’t need to take home. People had walked out with food in the refrigerator, food on the stove, food in the microwave.  

“Then we have maintenance and custodial staff who were scared. Besides having to clean everything that people touched, they had to help get everything ready for fall with all the new health and safety protocols. That required getting them geared up and comfortable that we could safely clean 3,600 student spaces. Incredibly,” Mustafa says, from March through August, “no residential students and no maintenance or custodial staff contracted nor tested positive for COVID-19.” 

Today, routine campus housing operations begin at breakfast—with food delivery at mealtimes to students in quarantine or isolation—and wrap up with contact tracing until 11 p.m. While both women acknowledge that throughout higher education campus housing often must wear many hats, COVID-19 has brought firsts in that regard, too.  

“I’m working with people I haven’t necessarily had to work with before, like I never really had to work with University Health Services, but that’s been good,” Sample says. “Meeting, working with and learning from people that you might not have except for this—for me, that’s probably the biggest unintended benefit of all this.” 

Students First

The staff in student affairs has responded to the many challenges UTC students face in a pandemic, making many difficult but necessary decisions. 

Jim Hicks stands in the University Center

Within higher education administration, Student Affairs is an area of professional practice, one in which success historically has been indicated by the degree to which students are persuaded to gather and engage in person.  

Like virtually every other aspect of life, COVID-19 has flipped that understanding on its head. “Our ability to create an engaging environment while maintaining the safety and security of our community is going to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my professional life. I still feel like that’s what we wrestle with every day,” says Jim Hicks, dean of students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. 

On top of having to rethink conventional student affairs wisdom, COVID-19 has brought its own set of additional challenges, says Brett Fuchs, Hicks’ colleague and associate dean. “We went from having very few student-of-concern cases to almost 200 in the last week and a half,” Fuchs says. “Part of it’s the ebb and the flow of the semester. We’ve hit the point of nearing midterms, so students are getting caught by instructors. We’re getting notices from instructors, ‘I haven’t seen this student.’ We’re getting notes from students, ‘Hey, I’m struggling. I need help.’  

“Then just dealing with COVID, in general, and that some students really struggle with being in a protocol-required isolation or quarantine.” 

UTC Student Affairs has worked to get “care packages” of snacks and supplies to students in isolation. Food delivery to residential students is one of the problems to work out, he says, and they have collaborated with Alumni Affairs to engage area UTC graduates in delivering food and supplies to off-campus students. “We know isolation is tough, and while we need them to do it for their safety and the safety of the greater community,” Fuchs says, “we’re also trying to do what we can to show them we care about them.” 

“We know isolation is tough, and while we need them to do it for their safety and the safety of the greater community,” Fuchs says, “we’re also trying to do what we can to show them we care about them.” 

Near the end of fall semester, Hicks and team will host Zoom webinars for parents to discuss the return home by students for the holidays and what spring 2021 may be like. As the father of a current UTC freshman, Hicks says he shares parents’ disappointment that more traditional college experiences aren’t possible now. Besides what COVID-19 is taking away from the student experience, Hicks says his greatest concern is “what this really means for higher education in general.” 

“We’re not designed for this. Higher education is designed to bring people together, at least the brick-and-mortar institutions, and the residential institutions are designed to bring people together into one place, fairly closely-knit and create multiple opportunities to engage,” he says. “I think the institutions that are able to adapt to this kind of hybrid learning and social environment model are going to be the ones that are successful. It’s just too early right now to figure out what that model will be on the other side of this.” 

Feeding a Campus Challenged by COVID-19

Certainly, there was uncertainty about how safely to feed fewer students on campus during fall semester. Aramark’s Will Walker has led a remodeled effort. 

Over a busy summer of preparations for a COVID-19 modified fall semester at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, one thing was certain: Fall enrollment was uncertain. Sure, there was a count of registered students, campus housing contracts, parking permits and the like, but in the weeks leading up to the start of classes, a series of headlines reported the suspension or cancellation of in-person classes at one university after another.

UTC students showed up—0.5% more than in fall 2019, in fact—and a summer of planning, predicting and educated guessing about the student body’s food needs ended for Will Walker, resident district manager with Aramark, the contracted supplier for Mocs Dining. 

Having worked with UTC for three years, Walker had a good sense of what it took to feed the usual 9,000 or so undergraduates who buy meal plans or frequent campus dining venues. Only this fall, even student food consumption was drastically different. “The challenge in just the first few weeks was understanding what our new normal was going to be and, even with enrollment roughly the same, now it’s more like 4,000 students that we’re actually feeding,” Walker says. “This fall, most general education classes are online, and that’s a big portion of the student population, so really, I think we’re feeding mainly the on-campus, residential students.”

The upside of down volume, according to Walker’s colleague, Mocs Dining Marketing Coordinator Hannah Grigsby, is better circumstances for serving students in compliance with COVID-19 health and safety protocols. “Having the reduced volumes has really helped us be able to serve safely. I don’t know how we would have been affected, obviously there are protective measures in place,” Grigsby says, “but we would have had a much more challenging environment if we were serving the same number of students as in prior years.”

“When we calculated it out based on the volume we would have at peak periods,” Walker adds, “the line would have wrapped all the way around this (University Center Dining) space.”

A couple of pleasant surprises: greater student willingness to join a Zoom videoconference than in-person sessions to give customer feedback and accelerated implementation of plans to go to 100% cashless transactions. Also a surprise: a drastic drop in customer volume at Starbucks in the UTC Library, possibly the result of full-time, swipe-card access to the building. 

While Grigsby says she eagerly looks forward to the resumption of traditional gatherings and events, meantime she’s grateful for a culture of understanding that’s emerged from this. “From traditional students to older ones to faculty and staff, I’ve been met with just a lot more understanding as far as concerns or challenges,” Grigsby says. “It’s been a welcome development.”

Brave Enough to Protect Those They Serve

Three strong, dependable coworkers are representative of many front-line heroes on duty daily at UTC.

Carolyn Edwards, Carla Mason and Carole Geter, Founders Hall

“Working from home” is another new reality of COVID-19. Unless your job can’t be done remotely. Unless, say, your job is keeping buildings clean and sanitized at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Reality for three women—and their coworkers on the cleaning staff at UTC—is coming to campus and going into their jobs with a keen awareness of COVID-19.

“It’s very different and scary, as well—cleaning bathrooms—but every day, I pray for protection from COVID. I pray for the Lord to go before me and do the jobs through me and to also cover me,” says Carla Mason, whose daily responsibilities include Founders Hall. Alongside her in Founders every day are Carole Geter and Carolyn Edwards. Edwards has the most seniority of the three, having grown up in Cookeville, Tennessee before coming to work at UTC in 1990. She plans to retire in February. Mason joined UTC in 2015, Geter in 2016, and both are Chattanooga natives. They live a shared belief each day: “Because I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me. And so with that being said, yeah … and also cover me.”

“Because I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me. And so with that being said, yeah … and also cover me.”

Edwards says COVID-19 is unlike any other challenge in her 30 years at UTC. Mason and Geter say the same of the University or anywhere they’ve worked previously. Adds Mason, “My thing is you just keep your gloves on and spray the stuff down really, really good with the cleaning and disinfectant stuff, then just try to keep stuff off of you. As you go, you figure out, ‘OK, I can’t do it this way, I’ve got to do it like that.’

“I try to make sure it’s nice because I’m proud of what I do and my work has my name on it, so I want it to look good.” Mason’s commitment to her work was recognized soon after she joined UTC. She won a Chancellor’s Blue Ribbon award for exceptional service in 2018, the result of her reaching out to a struggling student who lived in a residential building where Mason worked at the time. She recognized the female student was troubled, comforted her and earned the student’s trust, then was able to connect the student with appropriate help.

“Another one of the hard things about now is you can’t be together with people like that,” Mason says. “Like the students, when you talk to them and you make them feel good, they always want to hug. You can’t hug anymore.”

“You never know what’s on these students’ minds,” Geter adds. “Staff, too, but we know when something’s wrong. If we can, we’ll try to help.”

All three women say they also know they’re appreciated, which means a lot—especially now.

“It’s good to hear when the chancellor says, ‘We appreciate you guys, y’all go above and beyond,’” Mason says. “Yes, and we feel good about the University staffers we work with because they treat us really well, and with respect,” Geter adds. While Edwards is counting the days toward retirement, she says she’s also hoping COVID-19’s days are numbered. “I just hope, and how soon, that it gets better for the whole world, you know what I mean?” Edwards says. “Not just for here, not just at UTC, but for everybody.”

In Case of Emergency

In a first-hand account, Robie Robinson, UTC assistant vice chancellor for emergency services and USA president of the International Association of Emergency Management, writes about how his team has dealt with the pandemic.

Situations like this are what Emergency Management is all about: preparing for, responding to, and recovering from things like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and yes, pandemics. That doesn’t mean that because I am a certified emergency manager I have a crystal ball and all the answers. On the other hand, it does mean I have experience dealing with emergencies and have participated in events, training exercises and planning for most of the things we have seen on television and in our own community the last six months.

During the H1N1 event in 2009—you may remember it as the Swine Flu epidemic—I was director of safety and emergency management for a county government in Texas. I learned a lot from that experience, and though every incident is different, what I learned then helps me with my job today.

As part of the UTC community, I have been working with everyone else here to ensure that we continue our educational mission while maintaining a safe campus during the current virus crisis. Luckily, a great many of the things that my department and I have been doing are things that I have done many times before on other disasters. One of the biggest obstacles is always resource management. It is hard to get what you need when and where you need it during a disaster. In this case, there was no hurricane or earthquake that took out roads and bridges, but we still had major supply-chain difficulties across the nation. Because of this, we have been busy here on campus obtaining and distributing masks, cleaning supplies and other needed items. This is probably the first time most people on campus have had to deal with emergency orders or price gouging by sources of much-needed supplies.

I have been through that rodeo plenty of times and I have to say I have been very impressed with the efforts by leadership of our University, Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the State of Tennessee in coordinating emergency orders. We have dealt with operational priorities, made tactical decisions, planned for shelters and overflow medical facilities, managed emergent volunteers and a host of other tasks. Emergency Management remains ready to deal with all the challenges that arise during a disaster and if you wonder how in the world anyone can put all these things into some sort of order, we use the National Incident Management System, an organizational structure used by FEMA, Tennessee state government and Hamilton County. This helps ensure that our resource sharing and other functions work smoothly.   I could go on about the issues with which we have dealt, but it would sound like a textbook for an emergency management class and at least a textbook might have pictures! Let me just say that a lot of people have worked very hard to do a lot of things they never thought they would do, and I am proud to have been able to bring a little expertise to the table and help where I could.

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