Not all heroes scale walls, bend steel, or fly. And that’s especially true on a college campus when staff are called to respond to a pandemic. From moving students off campus, to delivering books to faculty, to deep cleaning our learning spaces, TCNJ’s essential workers courageously stepped up. Here’s a heartfelt Hi-five and plenty of gratitude to some of the people and departments that kept our community safe and our buildings functioning this past year.
The early responders
It was December 2019, nearly three months before TCNJ shut down campus because of COVID-19, that Janice Vermeychuk began to worry. As the director of student health services, she stays up to date on health issues that could inundate large, close-quarter populations. Some of her colleagues in China began sharing messages about the virus and its impact on the other side of the globe.
“I knew the virus was on its way here,” Vermeychuk says.
She began to mentally prepare for what a viral outbreak might look like and worked with the New Jersey Department of Health and TCNJ’s Critical Emergency Response Team to establish guidelines for how the college would operate.
Vermeychuk teamed up with Rafia Siddiq, strategic health and wellness specialist, who created and implemented the college’s contact tracing program — something that didn’t exist just 11 months ago — and rolled out health checks for students and staff through the Roar app. In the fall, about 1,200 individuals completed health checks daily, and that number is expected to ramp up this spring. Siddiq believes the collaboration among the TCNJ community is what will make the health plans successful. “The system runs more smoothly having everyone work together,” Siddiq says.
The focus now is on COVID-19 testing and the administration of vaccines. Vermeychuk anticipates about 1,000 students will be tested per day, and Student Health Services is enrolled as a CDC COVID-19 vaccine program provider. “How we live and work has been changed, probably forever,” Vermeychuk says. “But with vaccines coming, we are on our way.”
Holding down the fort
Students are the heart of TCNJ, so perhaps no group has been more affected by the pandemic — or the students’ absence — than the division of student affairs. “People felt decisions were life and death,” says Kelly Hennessy, interim vice president of student affairs. “There’s the constant thought of ‘We need to keep students safe.’”
As the college converted to a remote campus, Hennessy and her staff of resident directors had to find solutions to a fast-moving cycle of questions: where to house international students and students with housing insecurity; if students need to quarantine, where and how to do that; and how to plan for a safe move-out process.
Move out was a 31-day event that required balancing ever-changing state safety protocols and anticipating the needs of students, some terrified to be on campus and others wanting to retrieve their belongings. “We didn’t know if the virus was transmitted through air, or by touch,” says Alex Wehrenberg, a resident director. “So we had to rethink the entire process.” That included everything from complex scheduling to propping doors to putting keys in bags.
Student affairs also managed the very real question of student wellbeing. “My main role is to build community,” says Wehrenberg. “But that was a daunting task in the distanced reality we occupied.”
All are eager to feel the heartbeat back on campus. “One of my favorite parts about being an RD is being able to say ‘hi’ to my residents in the hall as they go about their day,” says resident director Michelle Forbes. “Our students have shown such resilience during this time and I am really proud of them.”
Our cleaning champions
“My people never missed a beat,” says Salomé Sedares, director of building services, of her custodial staff. At the first hint of the virus — when the world was being implored to wash hands and disinfect surfaces — her staff felt a sense of responsibility (and worry) to keep themselves and the campus community healthy. “It was really frightening at first,” Sedares says. “No one wanted to touch anything, but my workers had to. They were the ones cleaning and sanitizing things.”
Sedares and her stoic crew devised a plan for cleaning classrooms, centralizing trash collection, and sanitizing bathrooms. “We were in full safety mode before the official guidelines were even out,” Sedares says.
Building attendant Cynthia Harris and the rest of Sedares’ staff left little chance for the virus to find a home in common areas or residence halls accessed by those who remained on campus. “Building Services staff has been the front line and a constant presence on the campus throughout the pandemic,” says Sedares. “They have unwaveringly proved their commitment to the safety and health of the students, the staff, and the college, and I am grateful to each and every one of them.”
The energy savers
Just because no one was in their offices doesn’t mean that utilities can be ignored. No one knows that better than James Kirchner, director of plant operations. TCNJ’s utility plant sends heat, air conditioning, and electricity out to campus. “We can’t shut all that down just because no one is in the buildings,” says Kirchner. The jet engines and boilers that control the power on campus need licensed operators at all times, and Kirchner depended on his team of boiler operators like Bob Hitchcock to do that.
The boiler operators were responsible for checking water temperatures and controlling humidity to prevent mold from building up, a task vital to keeping our buildings, and the people in them, healthy. “My staff come every day, in three different shifts,” says Kirchner. “I am really proud my crew has stepped up to the plate in times like these and we are keeping the college running.”
The problem solvers
No one was more prepared to take on the challenge of cataloguing and storing the college’s supply of personal protective equipment than the athletics department.
Already equipped with an inventory system that tracks every item administered to the college’s student athletes, Liz Shatkus, senior associate director of athletics for facilities and operations, and her team flipped the algorithm on its head. Instead of jerseys, football pads, and soccer balls, Shatkus, Matt Beym, and Casey Saverio were now itemizing face masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.
“We had the tools to do it, so it seemed natural to try and get everyone what they needed,” she says. “We’re in a pandemic. The best thing you can do is be helpful where you can.”
Working with the college’s PPE task forces, the team coordinated with the mail room to collect, categorize, and distribute the supplies across campus. “We were joking that we created a PPE headquarters in the racquetball court,” Shatkus says. “A tiny Amazon.”
TIFFANY REED, KEVIN McCOLLOUGH, CHERYL CAMPBELL, MARCIE MONTALVO, AND JAMES LOPEZ
TCNJ Campus Police
Superpower: Being anywhere they’re needed
Call to duty: Patrol campus, unlock doors, retrieve and deliver computers and equipment to faculty, secure personal protective equipment.
At their finest: Manned The Shop@ TCNJ, the food pantry located in Campus Town, and distributed food to 114 visitors in 2020.
The lawn guardian
Grounds and landscape services
Superpower: Transformative beauty
Typical work day: Weber and the 20+ members of his team maintain campus charm by mowing, weeding, blowing leaves, and planting fresh flower beds.
Points of pride: Planted 400 pounds of grass seed, replaced nine trees, and installed 1,500 square feet of sod on the baseball field.
Faculty mentors, assemble!
Superpower: Flipping the college to remote learning
How she did it: Created the Faculty Helping Faculty hotline so that every professor could call on a colleague to help answer questions about the online modules for their classes.
Tour de force: Went from assisting 20 faculty per semester with online courses prior to the pandemic to 600 — a 3,000% increase.
The camera crusaders
LEN NIEBO, ROMAN SOHOR, AND BARRY FRIEDMAN
Enterprise infrastructure and media & technology support services
Superpower: Campus connectivity
Their charge: Install the tech needed to bring faculty and students from the living room to the classroom.
Points of pride: Ran nearly 7.5 miles of cable in order to connect classroom cameras for remote learning.
Origin story: TCNJ’s hybrid MBA program prepared them for this moment because they had already been using remote-learning technology, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Distributor of knowledge
R. Barbara Gitenstein Library
His realm: Literary omniscience
Noble feat: Created a library material curbside pickup program for faculty and students.
Stats: Packaged and delivered more than 1,200 orders since June 2020.
Special delivery handler
Package deal: Handled the surge in package volume due to deliveries of PPE, plexiglass, and cleaning supplies needed for COVID-19 protocols.
Motto: Pick up package, scan, go wash hands, repeat.
Notice to students: Your care packages are safe and ready for you to pick up when back on campus.
The jacks of all trades
RYAN LAO AND CANDIDO MARTINEZ
Superpower: Minimizing damage
Points of pride: Responded to steam leaks and other campus emergencies, installed COVID-19 signage across campus, repaired doors and stained ceiling tiles. Maritza McGraw, senior director of facilities operations, is grateful to the pair for keeping campus in “top shape.”
We know we have hit on only a few of our TCNJ heroes here. Help us highlight more by sending stories of staff or alumni who have helped the most during the pandemic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Bill Cardoni