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Ghostbusters: Housing and dining staff adapt to a semester like no other

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 A Housing and Dining staff member hands off a meal to a student. H&D has drastically changed its operations during the pandemic (Robert Heeter/Thresher)

By Dan Helmici and Madhu Venkatesalu     10/6/20 10:59pm

Ghostbusters are on campus. They’re not a fictional group of men fighting supernatural beings, but a team of Housing and Dining staff led by Noel Romero, tasked with sanitizing hand-touched surface areas and performing other duties that help to stop the spread of COVID-19 around campus. The Ghostbusters team, along with many other H&D staff members, are trained to use an electrostatic sprayer, which uses a positively charged disinfectant that coats surfaces and cleans them. 

“[The electrostatic sprayer] looks like a proton pack, so that’s why we call them the Ghostbusters team,” Romero said.

Forming the new Ghostbusters team is just one of the measures that the H&D department took under Rice’s reopening plan when the pandemic disrupted life at Rice and they began to plan for a socially distanced fall semester. Equipped with new and changed tasks and responsibilities, staff prepared themselves for an unprecedented fall. 



Changing responsibilities

To prepare them for what was to come, all H&D staff were trained over the summer to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines and instructions.

“We don’t touch the cards and we don’t get as close to the kids as we did last year because we have to stay our distance and we have to make sure we sanitize,” Janice Robinson, a cashier at Seibel Servery, said. “It’s a whole lot different. Most things are to-go because [students] can’t touch too [many] things. We serve the students instead of themselves.”

While some staff members like Robinson have changed the way they perform their jobs, others have entirely new responsibilities to fulfill. Romero is leading the new Ghostbusters team in addition to overseeing H&D staff on the north side of campus. 

“When we go into colleges, [we sanitize] indoor furniture, doorknobs, the rails, stairs, anything you can think of that you’re gonna touch,” Romero said. 

Apart from being trained to follow CDC guidelines over the summer, H&D staff was also trained in the proper use of personal protective equipment, according to Susann Glenn, director of communications for administration. Although certain protective gear has always been included in the department’s operating budget, the pandemic has brought new types of personal protective equipment to Rice, she said, such as specific masks, gloves and sanitizer for the staff. While dining staff have been provided with regular masks, Romero said his Ghostbusters team has been provided with N95 masks. 

“It’s mandatory for them to wear [the masks],” Romero said. “We don’t want them to inhale the chemicals.”

Derrix Norman, senior operations manager for isolation housing this year, said that there are challenges to working in a high-risk environment like Sid Richardson College’s quarantine housing, but he still feels that his staff and students are sufficiently protected from one another. 

“Hardest thing about it is being careful because there are positive cases,” Norman said. “We have to make sure that we have the proper [personal protective equipment] on. We have special [personal protective equipment] to wear to protect ourselves from the students.”

Staff working in isolation housing at Sid are provided with additional personal protective equipment, including specially fitted N95 masks, face shields, gloves and misting machines. Even with the special personal protective equipment for H&D employees working in isolation housing, staff are not permitted to interact face-to-face with students who have tested positive. For example, meals are left outside of their doors and guests in isolation are only allowed to access the Sid balconies before and after meal delivery.

“We don’t have too much interaction with the students,” Norman said. “[Our] only interaction is when we try to talk to them through email. They can text us when they get in the building. They can’t come out of the building or their dorm room until after 14 days.”

Similar restrictions on contact and exposure apply to H&D staff across campus, with employees keeping their distance from students and other staff members whenever possible. 

“We have masks. We have sanitizer and we just stay our distance,” Robinson said. “We don’t eat together and we separate everything. We’re not close to each other like before.”

Compensation

When quarantine began in March and the population of students on campus at Rice drastically lowered, and as COVID-19 started to create massive job loss and economic hardship for individuals around the country, H&D staff did not know what to expect. However, they have more clarity now, according to Norman. 

“Throughout the pandemic, we didn’t know if we were going to be furloughed,” Norman said. “But Rice kept us working. Our department kept our employees working.” 

Every H&D staffer who received specialized training over the summer was compensated, and training occurred during regular business hours, according to Romero.

“It’s the same hours,” Romero said. “On top of that, we have kitchen staff who are actually looking for extra hours because some of them are working three days.”

However, there has been criticism aimed at universities across the country for refusing to provide hazard pay for their employees, despite those employees putting themselves at risk by working during a pandemic. Rice is currently not providing hazard pay to its employees.

Moreover, H&D operations in other institutions have generally experienced budget cuts, as a result of fewer students choosing to return to campus. As a result, peer institutions have furloughed some employees and considered pay reductions for others. 

In a presentation to the Student Association, President David Leebron announced that H&D had lost $15 million worth of revenue from costs associated with closures last semester. According to Mia Culton, Rice’s budget director, H&D paid for all COVID-19-related refunds and all costs associated with running colleges during the pandemic. H&D covers all its expenses with revenue generated primarily from students paying room and board fees, but with colleges only filled to 55 percent of total capacity this year, H&D’s revenue has been significantly reduced. 

Preserving community

Even with the adjustments for safety during the pandemic, Norman said that H&D staff are able to preserve key aspects of the Rice community. 

“It is new to all of us. We have to change protocol. We have to keep ourselves safe to welcome you guys back, so it is kind of different compared to what our normal job is,” Norman said. “We try to take care of the students as much as we can. We talk to them, conversate with them, but we also need to protect ourselves too.”

Romero said that staff have been satisfied with how reopening has gone, which he attributes to the procedures laid out by administration and the Crisis Management Team.  

“As far as working at Rice, I feel like it’s one of the safest places to work at,” Romero said. “Every protocol, every guideline they provided for us has actually helped us not just here in our work environment, but at our personal lives, at home.”

As essential workers, Norman said that H&D employees on campus take their jobs very seriously to ensure that students are protected, and that H&D employees are there to support the Rice community through any situation and that he is dedicated to keeping campus open and safe for the semester.

“We are there to help students survive their education,” Norman said. “We just follow CDC guidelines and make sure that everyone has a safe education.”

Robinson, like many other H&D staff, said she enjoys interacting with students, staff and faculty around campus, and noted that the social interactions she has with the Rice community are her favorite parts of the job.

“I’m not here for the money,” Robinson said. “If I was, I wouldn’t be here. I just like working with students and people. I’m a people person so I love working with [them].”



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