On a rainy Wednesday in a workshop on a campus emptied by the coronavirus pandemic, Gary Mackiewicz was building the frames for massive plexiglass screens to divide the entrance and exit to the UConn Law library.
The dividers were part of a plan to allow law students, faculty and staff back into the library in carefully restricted circumstances after the Thanksgiving break. For Mackiewicz and his colleagues on the facilities team, the return of some students marked a small shift back toward normalcy after nine months of almost total isolation.
“We are missing the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that we get when we see students enjoying our beautiful campus,” said Jim Missell, the facilities manager. “It feels like a bit of a ghost town.”
“It definitely feels strange, some days it feels like you’re on the moon,” Mackiewicz said. “But at the same time it allows you to be a lot more focused and productive.”
Even among themselves, the four members of the facilities team and the small cleaning crew have been keeping their distance. Their regular lunches together have been suspended indefinitely. There has been one upside, however. In the quiet of the past eight months, the staff has had an unprecedented opportunity to take on projects without fear of disrupting classes or students trying to study.
“It certainly made getting important things done a lot easier,” Missell said. And there have been many important things.
Before he took on the screen project, Mackiewicz spent most of the summer building two new classrooms on the second floor of the library and working with the Information Technology Services staff to set them up. The new classrooms will have state-of-the-art technology for distance learning and student collaboration, including interactive touch screens, videoconferencing equipment and tracking cameras. At maximum capacity, each classroom will hold 20 students.
The classroom project, funded by the Welsh family, was planned before the pandemic began, but changes have been made to meet the challenges of the coronavirus. One alteration was to add more cameras in order to stream a 360-degree view of the classroom.
Another project that was underway before the coronavirus struck is construction of a new gym on the first floor of Knight Hall. The gym, expected to be ready in the spring of 2021, is part of a larger plan to make Knight Hall a social center for students. The new gym will replace a facility in the basement of William F. Starr Hall and will have nearly twice the floor space, two separate rooms, a higher ceiling and natural light. All the exercise equipment will be updated.
The facilities staff also repaired part of the roof on Hosmer Hall, hauling up hundreds of pounds of ballast stone and reapplying tar sealant to all the seams. They set up scaffolding and repointed one side of Starr Hall, jackhammering or chiseling back each mortar joint in the stone, and refinishing the masonry to protect it for the next 75 years. They also refinished the south stairway in Cheryl A. Chase Hall and repainted common areas throughout campus.
In addition to all the usual maintenance of the grounds, the crew reseeded the soccer field, planted new flowers and planted a chestnut tree in front of Chase Hall as a gift to the Class of 2020.
With such a wide array of projects assigned to a small staff, each member of the facilities team has had to acquires skills beyond his specialty. Mackiewicz is a locksmith by trade, Tom Baker is a landscaper and Michael Collins is an electrician. Together with Missell, they manage to get it all done.
Missell said he and his colleague have felt safe working on campus throughout the pandemic. He credits the dedicated cleaning staff and their enhanced cleaning measures for his staff’s zero percent infection rate.
Still, the lack of interaction with colleagues and students has been hard, Missell said, and it has taken a toll.
“It has been hard not regularly socializing with coworkers,” he said. “It feels like you lose that close connection at times.”
“I have always known that our facilities team was amazing, but the pandemic highlighted for me their dedication and resilience,” said Karen DeMeola, assistant dean for finance, administration and enrollment. “While we were all at home worrying, they were there every day working on a wide variety of projects.”