Jessica Abbott – University of Hartford
There’s no shortage of strange stories when dealing with an annually revolving menagerie of college students.
One day, you’re managing normal facilities-related issues—a clogged toilet or a broken pipe. And then you get a call you never imagined getting, the voice on the other end at once panicked and amused.
“There’s an octopus in a storm drain!”
“I was just hoping it was a stuffed animal. It wasn’t,” says Jessica Abbott, director of facilities and residential operations at the University of Hartford. “We didn’t have a protocol for that. But we do now!”
Broadly speaking, Abbott’s job is to set the stage for a positive learning experience. She assumed the role in February 2019. A year later, COVID-19 hit.
Thankfully, she had 17 years of team building experience to lean on—along with a deep connection to her alma mater, located on 350 acres in the heart of Connecticut’s capital city. A native of Massachusetts, Abbott attended UHart, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2006. In 2014, she completed work on an MBA in business administration and management.
“I came for a degree and ended up staying. After I graduated, they created a position for me and started to invest in my professional development,” Abbott reflects. “That’s when I realized this is a career. I’m good at it and have been involved ever since.”
A sticky situation
She never left the school—but the entire student population did earlier in 2020 due to COVID-19, going home for a weekend not knowing their semester was over—at least on campus.
Someone had to take care of the leftovers: dirty clothes, food-crusted plates, smelly mini fridges. One of those people was Abbott.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we did what we had to do,” Abbott says. “We have a really strong student work program, but our RFA’s [residential facility assistants] had to go home along with the rest of the students.”
Due to this confluence of factors, the university administration extended spring break 2020 by a week to buy some time. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to close the campus for the semester. The uncertainty caused students to leave both personal and academic items behind: textbooks, musical instruments, wall posters .. .and all those socks.
While the university scheduled move-out days, not everyone could make it back to campus. Instead, the UHart offered to pack up belongings and move them to the student’s next housing assignment. Cleaning up the abandoned belongings proved to be a more Herculean task than anticipated.
For the 2020-21 school year, UHart will skip spring break and push through to the end of the semester to protect students from unnecessary travel. One thing’s for sure: If the school is forced to release students before the end of the spring 2021 semester, they’ll be taking their stuff along.
“I don’t think any of us realized what an undertaking this would be,” Abbott says. “It won’t happen again. We’ve learned from the experience, that’s for sure.”
Back to school
Like most institutions of higher learning dealing with coronavirus, the university is offering a variety of options for students: in person only, full remote and a hybrid model.
Abbott, her team and university administrators put several pandemic preparations in place, including reducing density in the dorms. Roommates are out; solo living is in. Overall, the changes are working well. There’s even a trend of students transferring to UHart at the last minute for an in-person educational experience.
“About 50 percent of the total student population are living and studying on campus in 2020,” Abbott says. “Overall, we’re at about 75percent occupancy due to the pandemic.”
Living without roommates can help minimize the number of students that need to quarantine after potential exposure. Facilities, residential life, and other campus partners have worked with the university’s food-service provider to offer a quarantine concierge service to help make staying cooped up more tolerable. UHart is working to make sure quarantined students are comfortable in addition to meal delivery: furniture, linens, snack foods, a microwave and—perhaps most importantly—toilet paper.
To make this happen, quarantine-isolation areas were created separate from regular student housing. To meet recommended cleaning guidelines, students have been asked to clean up after themselves much more strenuously. Cleaning supplies are provided along with instructions on how to use and restock them. Typically, and especially when it comes to apartment living, students are on their own until the end of the year.
“You look at some of these showers at the end of the year and wonder how anyone came out of them clean,” Abbott says. “In some apartments you don’t want to touch anything. Now, we’re holding them to a higher standard.”
To that end, regular inspections are being conducted, and most students will be off campus from just before Thanksgiving to late January. The facilities and residential operations team will have a chance to make sure units are in good condition—and coronavirus-safe.
Student life goes on
Outside of the confines of student housing, Abbott notes that most at UHart have been conscientious when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing.
The school set up a tip line where mask and guest-policy violations can be reported. The goal is encouraging everyone to be part of the solution while holding each other accountable.
The university has also been hosting more outdoor and virtual events, limiting the size of gatherings and generally rethinking how to provide for students so they’re not just holed up in their room for days and weeks.
Also, the RFA’s are back. In normal times they live in university housing at reduced rates in exchange for their work.They know the terminology and what’s needed for the job. Some just do it to save money on student housing. Others have gone on to become facility managers, engineers, architects. Whether an RFA, or not, students are the university’s and Abbott’s main concern.
“Students want to be here, they want the experience, and the ones not taking it as seriously aren’t the norm,” Abbott says. “We’re doing everything we can to create the best student experience possible as we feel it’s paramount to the success of the school.”
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