Dear Students, Families, Faculty and Staff: Recently the Onondaga County Health Department has reported a notable decline in new COVID infections and hospitalizations across the Central New York region. This positive trend, combined with significantly reduced population density on our…
Highlight the Heroes Part 1: Staff Members Display Ingenuity, Determination, Teamwork in Face of COVID-19 Pandemic
As the novel coronavirus took hold in the United States and locally nearly a year ago, many members of the campus community have had to reimagine countless processes, solve new and challenging problems, work together in ways previously unheard of and stepped up in ways large and small to continue protecting the health and well-being of those who call Syracuse home.
The first in a series, here are the stories of just a few people and teams that have risen to the task and shown what it means to be Orange. Do you know someone who has been a COVID Hero? Let us know and we may spotlight them in an upcoming story!
Building a Testing Database From Scratch
Last summer, as the public health team planned for the mass testing program that would become an essential part of our risk mitigation strategy, they called on two data scientists from the Department of Enrollment Management to design and build a testing database. Scott Davis and Chris Dunham were initially tapped to build a system to track around 20,000 student tests, the University’s initial testing plan at the outset of the Fall 2020 semester.
As our COVID response continued to evolve, so did the database requirements. The system, colloquially referred to as Shiny, was continually upgraded and expanded upon by Davis and Dunham to include tracking compliance with testing requirements, automated communications to students, faculty and staff regarding test results and reminders to be tested, and more than 170,000 tests worth of data being tracked.
“It’s a custom solution with everything built entirely from scratch,” says Dunham, who alongside Davis collaborated with the University’s lead epidemiologists to build and refine the platform. “We were embedded in the COVID Project Management Office (PMO) to determine what the needs were, and then shaped the system in our heads and started programming.” These extraordinary efforts were undertaken in addition to the “normal” data work Davis and Dunham conduct in the Division of Enrollment and the Student Experience in support of our incoming students.
Supporting Students in a Year Like No Other
The Dean of Students (DOS) Office, a centralized student resource that provides support and advocacy during times of challenge, hardship or difficulty, includes Dana Broadnax, assistant dean of students; Tyrone Reese, assistant director; and four case managers: Cristina Battle, Shelley Crawford, Emanual Oliver and Susan Sugar. In the face of the pandemic, this team became a major communications resource and information ambassador to students and their families by fielding questions, concerns and issues regarding new policies and protocols.
The DOS team also expanded their purview from the standard concerns their office addresses—mental health, physical health, academic concerns—and supported students dealing with the toll of COVID-19 on themselves and their families. Caseloads increased as case managers built relationships with students in quarantine or isolation to support their academic persistence, personal needs and wellness, many of which continued after the quarantine/isolation period ended, offering ongoing student support.
Engagement with students increased thanks to the proliferation of technology, like Zoom and Teams, to conduct appointments and reach students who study remotely. The unique circumstances of 2020 and 2021 also brought increased opportunities for collaboration and partnership between the DOS team and other areas of the student experience, including Student Living, Student Rights and Responsibilities, First-Year and Transfer Programs, and Parent and Family Services.
“To be a strong case manager, one needs to be able to establish and maintain relationships that can benefit students,” says Oliver. “It’s important to support the whole student.” Case managers have worked to build relationships across campus with academic advisors, counselors, faculty and other support staff. “Operating during a pandemic to offer the best student experience truly demands that we all demonstrate a higher level of service with agility, flexibility, creativity and collaboration,” says Broadnax.
Providing On-Campus Health Services During a Pandemic
For the health care team at the Barnes Center at The Arch, communicating with students and parents about COVID-19, prevention and self-care became a paramount area of focus in 2020, as well as managing the testing, screening, isolation/quarantine and care of University students.
“I’ve had almost-daily communication with the Onondaga County Health Department as we work together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus,” says LeeAnne Lane, nurse manager in the Barnes Center. “The clinical team has had to adapt to changes in workflow, increased demand, the anxiety of students and parents—not to mention PPE [personal protective equipment] becoming part of our everyday uniform.” The team has had to get creative about how they interact with students and each other in a way that builds trust, such as writing their name and title on their protective gowns or face shields.
As cases grew on our campus last fall, the health care team was challenged to see more people, test more people and field more phone calls from both sick and concerned students and parents. At the same time, many staff members were personally dealing with their own concerns related to the pandemic.
“The team demonstrated compassion, diligence and an unprecedented amount of teamwork,” says Lane, adding that despite daily exposure to persons who had tested positive for COVID-19, none of the clinical staff contracted the infection. “The University has demonstrated in so many ways that it cares for the entire campus community. As a health care professional, I have seen just how much our small corner of the University can be impacted by its surroundings, as well as how much power we have to impact others.”
Re-thinking Food Service and Delivery
Dining has looked quite a bit different on our campus over the past year, and staff members in Food Services have rolled with the many curveballs thrown their way. From reconfiguring their cafes and dining centers to accommodate social distancing, to installing plexiglass and contactless payment at point-of-service, to coordinating food options for students in isolation and quarantine housing, the team has worked tirelessly to adapt to the pandemic restrictions and requirements.
“Our crew never hesitated and has done whatever we asked of them since the initial shutdown last March,” says Mark Tewksbury, co-director of Food Services.
For students in isolation at Skyhall or quarantining at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel & Conference Center, the team developed new meal delivery options that encompass a wide range of dietary preferences, consulting with their registered dietitian to ensure the menu meets the needs of all students. They text students in isolation and quarantine daily to solicit orders, have in-sourced campus food delivery and distribute shelf-stable items for students who may arrive into quarantine or isolation housing late in the day.
“Staff has been more than willing to accommodate the new requirements—wearing masks, following cleaning and sanitation protocols, and staying socially distanced. They have stepped up in every single way,” Tewksbury says.
Syracuse University Ambulance Shifts Gears
Paul Smyth, who oversees both Medical Transport Services and Syracuse University Ambulance (SUA) on campus, shifted job duties and personnel in rapid order to help provide medical transport to students who tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19 to isolation or quarantine housing.
“There were changes to our operations on a daily basis. We were constantly coming up against a new situation to plan for or a new challenge to resolve,” Smyth says. While the team’s call volume was down for on-campus emergencies due to reduced density, they were getting calls at higher volumes to transport students—many happening after typical business hours.
PPE was amped up for drivers and responders, while plexiglass shields were installed in vehicles to prevent transmission from passenger to driver and cleaning/sanitation protocols expanded. At certain points in the fall semester, additional vans were borrowed from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Parking and Transit Services so the team could have three isolation vans running.
“It was really a Herculean group effort,” Smyth says, noting the constant collaboration between his student workers, the Barnes Center health care team, the COVID Project Management Office, EHSS, Physical Plant, DPS and Parking and Transit. “If even one component was missing, we wouldn’t have had the same great outcomes.”
Stay tuned to SU Today to read the second installment of this series!