BC’s Essential Workers Strive to Keep Campus Normal After students fled campus and life slowly halted, the behind-the-scenes workers at Boston College maintained safety and normalcy.

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hile the pandemic ravaged the globe and gradually left campus devoid of its usual vibrancy, BC’s essential employees kept campus afloat. Facilities and custodial workers, BC Dining employees, and University Health Services swiftly adapted to developing health guidelines to ensure the health and safety of students and staff who remained on the Heights, and did so “with a smile.” 

Facilities

(Photo Courtesy of Peter Julian / Boston College Magazine)

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hen the news broke on March 11 that students had four days to move out of their residence halls, many of the employees in Custodial and Facilities Services who were already on their way home turned around and came back. They needed to begin planning what would be long and arduous days of work ahead of them.

The staff first locked all classrooms so that they could focus on the residence halls where students were moving out, throwing away trash and making sure hallways were kept open to prevent fire safety issues. 

“It was crazy … they had to just pack up everything quickly, some kids left stuff behind,” said Sherisse Trim, a custodial worker who assisted in the expedited move-out process. “We had to help them if they needed help, make sure that everything was taken out the rooms, and [then] we did go in and clean from top to bottom.”

After the move-out deadline, they directed their efforts to Upper Campus to prepare dorms that would house the students who remained. They dusted the furniture, wiped down the windows, vacuumed the floors, shampooed the rugs, powerwashed the bathrooms, cleaned the stairwells—and disinfected everything. Then they made the apartments in 2150 Commonwealth Ave. ready for students that would need to be quarantined and isolated.

During that time, the team members were working around the clock and doing overtime shifts, according to Fred Vautour, a Facilities staff member who has worked at BC for nearly 26 years.

“It was kind of scary because nobody really knew what this COVID thing was all about,” Vautour said.

But while fears about the virus may have driven many away from the residence halls, and campus in general, facilities and custodial staff suited up to get the job done. 

“My staff were the first responders. We’re the only group that were in those rooms on a day-to-day basis,” said Director of Custodial and Facilities Services Gerard Boyle. “They just did a tremendous job. … I’m just so proud of them.”  

Once the remaining students were moved to Upper, Facilities teams who usually worked in those residence halls increased their efforts to disinfect all doorknobs and push plates, empty trash barrels, and clean bathrooms twice a day, before stopping to take a lunch break. In the afternoons, staff returned to clean common areas, stairwells, and the bathrooms again. 

“[Our staff is] on the front lines of what I call germ warfare, something that we couldn’t see but was having a major impact throughout the world,” Boyle said. “Our staff did an unbelievable job, they just said, ‘OK, we know what we have to do. Let’s just get it done.’”

Darnell Fils, MCAS ’22—who stayed on campus as an RA after most students went home—recalled a time when a student who was locked out of their room woke him up at about 5 or 6 in the morning. When Fils stepped into the hallway, he noticed that John Coleman, a member of the custodial staff, was already there, taking out garbage, cleaning bathrooms, and spraying the doorknobs.

“I’ve got to give props to the janitorial staff. They really took care of stuff,” Fils said. “Early in the morning to late in the afternoon, these guys were working.” 

Facilities added a second shift of coverage spanning anytime from 3 in the afternoon through 11 at night each day of the week, during which a team would return to each residence hall and repeat the same process. Facilities staff also assisted in cleaning University Health Services, but in the case that a student tested positive, the University contracted an outside business to err on the side of caution. 

On Trim’s twice-daily rounds through the Upper Campus residence halls, she sometimes was unsure whether she was at risk of contracting the virus. 

“We didn’t know if any one of [the students] had the virus or not,” Trim said. “Every week, we would get an update from our supervisor whether or not, but still. Most of the time, I did feel safe … but there were one or two times where I wasn’t sure.” 

“They were just pretty much putting themselves at risk by just being around extra students, but they obviously did it with care and were able to do the job very well,” said social work student Omonike Oyelola, BC ’20, who also stayed on campus as an RA.

Despite Trim’s fear and the fact that she rarely crossed paths with any of the students, the few times she did, she made an effort to offer them encouragement.

“It was very quiet … but if I’d see one or two come out I’d just say hi and tell them everything is OK,” Trim said.

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(Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor)

Adapting to changing CDC guidelines was challenging, Boyle explained. After initially saying that only those who are ill should wear masks due to potential mask shortages, the CDC and health authorities began recommending in early April that everyone wear masks or face coverings in public areas. Governor Charlie Baker issued an order requiring them on May 6. Custodial and Facilities Services then needed to ensure that they provided all of their employees with proper equipment. 

“There was a little bit of a struggle … working with our staff and trying to give them updates,” Boyle said. “Things change, day to day, sometimes week to week.”

Facilities supervisors arranged for periodic meetings at different locations for the 174 custodians, typically divided into three shifts, during which they would review policies. Boyle noted that though the staff remained committed to their labor, it was an emotionally onerous time for many. 

“It was tough those first couple of weeks after the students moved out because … every night you turn on local stations or national TV. [And] it was just not good news, and then people would come back in and be talking to their co-workers about it,” Boyle said. “It was a difficult work environment for a period of time.” 

Vautour, who works the overnight shift cleaning Robsham Theater and the parking garage elevators, said he missed all the activity he used to see at night while working near senior housing. 

“lt’s different. It’s like a ghost town,” he said. “I like it when everything’s going on, because it makes it very interesting.”

For Trim, a sense of normalcy came by maintaining her positive attitude. 

“I’m a very friendly person… when I come in, I’m always happy I’m always smiling. … I never had a different vibe [throughout] the situation,” she said. 

Oyelola recalled the kindness that the custodial staff showed students during the pandemic, even leaving them plush chicks in the hallways as they spent Easter away from their families. 

“I just wanted to express appreciation for the staff who took the time to be able to come into BC and to continue on with their jobs to help to serve the campus community and the students, because I know it was really helpful,” she said.

Dining

(Photo Courtesy of Marcela Norton / BC Auxiliary Services)

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e are all in this together, and we’ll get through this together” is the mantra that BC Dining adopted while working amid the pandemic.

When students returned to campus from Spring Break on March 9, the dining staff already had food safety and hygiene protocols in place. The dining hall experience closely resembled that of when the norovirus swept through campus last year—food was individually wrapped, self-serve stations were moved behind counters, and students were reminded to wash their hands. Although only a few hundred students were left to feed on campus after March 15, BC Dining ramped up its approach to health and safety. 

All dining services were condensed to Carney’s Dining Room in McElroy Commons. From the moment students stepped into Mac, they were directed to sanitize their hands and leave backpacks and personal belongings outside.

“They just took all of the policies and everything really seriously,” said Mary Brooks, Lynch ’22, who stayed on campus through the semester as an RA. “Every day, there’d be changes.”

Brooks spoke with delight about her experience with BC Dining, who she said was always willing to accommodate her dietary restrictions as a vegan. When there weren’t many vegan options her first day on Upper Campus, the staff was willing to cook her food—and from then on they always had a vegan meal available. 

“When I came in, they radioed in on their speaker,” Brooks said. “They were like, ‘vegan!,’ and you could hear it going off in the kitchen.”

The dining staff was adaptable with their menu, but when it came to protocols, that was a different story. When waiting outside the serving area, students stood in line on arrows on the ground that were spaced six feet apart, and nobody was allowed in unless they were given the go-ahead. Staff members watched students vigilantly as they waited—anyone who touched their phone or their face was sent back to wash their hands. 

“I got yelled at like every day,” Brooks said with a laugh. 

“That was probably by me, I’m not going to lie,” said BC Dining General Manager Michael Forcier, also known as “Mike at Mac.” 

Forcier said that students weren’t too keen on the protocols at the beginning, but he thinks they eventually became appreciative of what the staff was doing to keep them safe. 

“It was something that we took super [seriously],” Forcier said. “So yeah, probably a few people got yelled at.”

Dining Services put a contactless payment system in place: Cashiers sat behind plexiglass, and students swiped their own IDs. 

The dining staff was working hard to enforce safety measures to protect students, but knowing their safety was also a priority bolstered their efforts. 

“I really appreciate that when I leave my house to go to BC, I know I am in a safe place,” a senior lead cashier Heraldo Laguerre said.

To comply with government restrictions, BC Dining crafted a COVID-19 training on social distancing, during which staff met once a week in Eagle’s Nest to perform simulations to assure the best possible adherence to safety standards. Forcier led the training with the same zeal as he does his hobby as a basketball referee. 

“He would blow the whistle and [staff] would have to move from one spot to another… and he would blow the whistle if you got too close to somebody, just to get people used to being six feet apart,” said Beth Emery, director of BC Dining. “It was really effective, and it was fun.” 

During the weekly sessions, staff were also reminded to be sensitive when interacting with students, and to recognize that they often did not know the hardships students faced that prevented them from returning home. 

“We were putting ourselves in the students’ shoes… [and] we were trying to do it with a smile,” Forcier said. 

When a previously scheduled order of Easter candy arrived at McElroy, which would have been sold in the dining halls in a normal year, the staff jumped at the opportunity to bring some joy to students. Various employees dedicated one of the weekly training sessions to assembling and personally delivering Easter baskets to each student who remained on campus.

“It was just the thought that was really great,” Brooks said. 

But the generosity did not stop with students. Recognizing that the students and Jesuits who remained on campus were not the only ones in need, BC Dining turned to help those in need in the area as well. 

BC Dining reached out to multiple vendors who had food that was going to expire if not put to use, and collaborated with the Volunteer Service Learning Center and Mayor Marty Walsh’s office to prepare and package meals to be donated to those in need in the greater Boston area. 

While summers usually mean serving students who live on campus during the summers, a mostly empty campus means more opportunity to provide for those in need. Through “Curbside for a Cause,” an initiative launched on June 1, when a meal for four is bought, BC Dining donates another meal for four to a family in need.

After 30 years of working for BC Dining, Laguerre considers campus to be his first home and the BC community to be members of his family. When he heard that some students would be staying on campus, he knew immediately that he wanted to be there for them.  

“I don’t need to stay home, so I can continue working to help them,” Laguerre said. “No matter what, I’ll be there.”

Adjusting to a new work environment was challenging for the dining staff—both logistically and emotionally, according to cashier Dorita Angelats, who was transferred from her usual post on Newton Campus once all dining services were consolidated to Mac.

The lack of physical human contact has made Angelats realize the importance of body language in her interactions with her co-workers. Although the circumstances have altered the way she and her co-workers interact, the feelings among them remain constant.

“Now we do hearts with our hands and blow kisses and smile… we’re still working on it, but we’re trying to be the same as we used to be,” Angelats said. 

Notorious for supplying the BC community with a daily dose of positivity in Eagle’s Nest, Laguerre had to adjust to the new restrictions for interacting with others, having to resist the urge to remove his mask so students could see his smile while he spoke to them. Although a mask and layer of plexiglass stood between him and others, he used the brief moments to comfort students as best he could—often passing along tidbits from the training of how students can best protect themselves. 

Dagny Belak, MCAS ’20—who was extremely happy to see that Laguerre was working at Mac—said that there’s a reason he’s a campus celebrity. 

“He remembers you, he will ask about you, and he has this infectious smile that it just brings joy to everyone,” she said. “He’s just one of the most positive, friendly people I’ve met ever.”

Even amid the challenging alterations to their workplace, both Laguerre and Angelats have found a silver lining. Because all dining staff campus-wide were relocated to McElroy, they said they are grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know other employees they would otherwise not cross paths with.

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(Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor)

Students’ eventual trickling out from Upper Campus brought on emotional goodbyes—Laguerre recalled one student telling him “I wish I could give you a hug” before moving back home. The dining staff had provided comfort to students as they grieved the loss of long-anticipated graduation festivities, celebrated birthdays away from their friends and family, and stressed about how they would find jobs after graduation.

“It was just the simple things—asking students, ‘How are you today?,’ ‘When are you going to go home?’ ‘Are you going to be safe going home?’ ‘Can you book a flight?’” Belak said. “Everyone who worked in dining deserves recognition for just doing such an incredible job of kind of staying calm carrying on.”

When one international student struggled with how to get her luggage home, Forcier shipped it to her. When asked how she could repay him, all Forcier asked for was an email letting him know she arrived home safely.

“A lot of us in dining have children, and if they were in a place far away in a hospital, we would hope that somebody would take care of [them],” Forcier said.

Angelats recalled a time when a student told her they were struggling to finish their classes online, and she encouraged them not to give up.

“You are here for a reason… you just have to push yourself a little bit,” she said to them. “Hang in there. We are here to support you.”

Health Services

(Photo Courtesy of Caroline Faherty / University Health Services)

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hile the facilities staff was busy cleaning campus and the dining staff was feeding the students who remained at BC this spring, University Health Services was testing, contact tracing, and taking care of those who were sick with COVID-19.

“They were so good at kind of like replicating what a mom would do—checking in and seeing what you needed, affirming anything you were worried about, and just helping put you at ease more,” said Dagny Belak, an international student from the Netherlands. Belak tested positive for COVID-19 while on campus and said that she was the first person to be quarantined at BC. 

Another student who tested positive and was isolated on campus, who spoke with The Heights on the condition of anonymity, said that the UHS nurses helped ease what was a terrifying time, not necessarily because he felt very ill, but because everything was so unfamiliar.  

“They would just do the smallest gestures, like giving me a little bit of extra food or even just always calling to check in on me and checking vitals,” he said. “It really just helped me feel cared for when I was, quite frankly, missing my friends, missing home, and just nervous about being sick.” 

The UHS staff provided services not only to the hundreds of students who were housed in residence halls on Upper Campus after the March 15 move-out deadline, but also to graduate students and juniors living off campus who chose to stay in the area. 

The staff at UHS had to keep up with guidelines that would change daily as the Centers for Disease Control and the medical community learned more about the illness, according to outgoing UHS Director Tom Nary. Scott Jusseaume, the associate director of Health Services Operations, stayed ahead of the curve by conducting research and talking to the Department of Public Health, said Theresa Barba, the quality improvement coordinator for UHS.

“Anything that the CDC and Department of Public Health recommended, we followed to the letter, and that’s what was changing all the time,” Barba said. “It was difficult, but we always got directives from Dr. Nary and Dr. Jusseaume, and we would just follow them.” 

Madelyn Rivera-Bellino, the nurse manager at UHS, said that some of the UHS nurses work at other hospitals and were able to bring back information about what those facilities were doing. 

Changes that the UHS team made in response to the virus were taking out chairs in the waiting room so that visitors would maintain social distancing, requiring all visitors to wear a mask, and decreasing the number of walk-in visits, according to Nary. 

“[The UHS staff was] extraordinary—they just stepped right up and did what was asked of them,” Rivera-Bellino said.

The UHS staff also began screening all students who called for an appointment for potential exposure to the virus, even if they were only calling because they had a twisted ankle or needed a prescription refill. 

“If you don’t ask the questions, you don’t know the answer,” Barba said. “So we have to ask everybody the same questions to protect ourselves and to protect them.”

When students arrived at the health center to get tested, they were greeted at the back door—the ambulance bay—and were instructed to put on a mask and gloves. Barba said that the UHS team was careful not to have students come in for testing back to back, and if someone tested positive for COVID-19, they called in a company to disinfect that room.

Students without fevers who still needed to remain in quarantine or isolation were kept in 2150 Commonwealth Ave. One wing of the building was for quarantining, which is where those who had been in contact with someone who had tested positive would stay. The other wing, which was for isolation, housed those who were currently positive for the coronavirus. The guidelines for each area weren’t much different, but they were more stringent in isolation, Nary said.

The UHS staff also began wearing scrubs, rather than their usual street clothes, to work. Everyone had dedicated work shoes and their own personal protective equipment, including goggles and face shields.

In order to have fewer staff present at the facility at once, UHS shifted the schedules of nurses and physicians so that they worked fewer days, with longer hours. Still, there was never a moment where a member of the UHS staff wasn’t on call. The overnight nurses care for students in the 10 infirmary beds, as well as any BC member walk-ins that come in, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., according to Anne Pickett, a nurse who works the UHS night shifts.

“We’re there 24 hours a day. We’re there seven days a week … and we’re there for the students,” said Barba. 

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(Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor)

UHS staff members also engaged in contact tracing from home after the Department of Public Health became overwhelmed with cases. 

“That in itself is a huge task to take on—to try to keep everyone safe, you have to do very quick contact tracing and contact all those people so that they can isolate and not keep spreading,” Rivera-Bellino said. “They were home, but they were essential as far as their role and how they helped to reach kids, especially when they all kind of scattered to go home.”

Nary referred to the contact tracing done for BC students as a “joint collaborative effort” between UHS and the Department of Public Health, consisting mostly of contacting students who had already gone home. 

“It was a lot of phone calls and trying to find every single person and find out who was sick, who wasn’t, and if they could get tested, and where they could get tested,” Rivera-Bellino said.

The UHS staff insisted that their operations were a team effort that relied on help from multiple other departments. When a student needed to be taken to quarantine or isolation, the ResLife staff was ready to take them to their room in 2150, show them the space, and make sure they had what they needed, Pickett said.

Belak recalled that the residential director of 2150, Mitchell Strzepek, was constantly available to help her if she needed anything: He organized travel kits of toiletries for the students, brought them extra blankets, and even surprised them with White Mountain. 

“It was just like the little things like that which just like made such a difference kind of just like cheering us up and like knowing that someone was there for us and like helping us,” Belak said. 

The isolated students also FaceTimed with a campus or resident minister once a day. Belak recalled talking with Jessica Graf, the assistant director of Residential Ministry, who would check in with her to see if she was OK and if there was anything she needed. 

“I felt very supported,” Belak said. “Even though I was physically isolated, I felt like I had a team of BC people behind me.”

(Featured Image Courtesy of BC Dining)

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About Abigail Hunt and Madeleine Romance