On June 24, 2020, the ONU Board of Trustees endorsed the University’s COVID-19 safety plan for resuming in-person education for fall semester 2020. The plan was developed by incorporating the informed efforts of several work groups and special teams, leadership reviews undertaken over several weeks, and helpful suggestions during a campus comment period. The plan was reviewed and fine-tuned throughout the summer to ensure continued compliance with guidance from federal and state governments and the local health department. This fall, ONU executed its implementation plan derived from the work done over the summer. Students, faculty and staff have worked tirelessly over the past seven months to ensure that the health, safety and well-being of every member of the ONU community remains our top priority. These are their stories.
As Ohio Northern put together the COVID-19 safety plan for fall 2020, it became apparent that the University would need to procure new materials and supplies to carry it out. Finding all of the items needed would be a challenge in normal times, but amid the pandemic, it would take the experience and skill of a seasoned pro.
As director of business services, Vicki Niese has been ONU’s point person for safety-plan procurement since the pandemic began. She’s spent the past five years of her 18-year career at ONU in this role, which includes risk management. As Northern set its sights on having students return for in-person education this fall, she knew the business services team would be crucial to its success.
“It’s been a challenging few months,” says Niese. “We have struggled at times to maintain adequate supplies of PPE, plexiglass and the cleaning supplies we need to keep our campus spaces adherent to our implementation plan. These items have become increasingly difficult to source, and the prices have risen drastically, especially plastic materials.”
The University’s early start to the fall semester squeezed the timelines even tighter, but Niese and her team were able to find the products and materials the University needed to make campus safe for students this fall. Student workspaces were retrofitted with plastic barriers. Sanitation stations for surface cleaning were added to all common areas, and each student received a Polar Pack of materials to help them adhere to the COVID-19 protocols. There was not a single campus building that wasn’t assessed and altered in some way in the leadup to the fall.
Niese was part of ONU’s core pandemic response team since February. Even before the pandemic hit the U.S. with its full force in March and ONU transitioned to online learning, she along with a group of ONU administrators were monitoring the Ohio Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and updating the University’s emergency response protocols in preparation for the worst.
As the pandemic intensified and new information became available, Niese helped keep the ONU Safety Plan up to date with the latest data and recommendations from health officials. The data-driven decisions the University made in those early weeks and months set the foundation for what ONU’s return would look like in the fall. Some of the aforementioned changes to physical spaces on campus required considerable time and resources to implement, while others like establishing the safety protocols of individual and collective behavior (wearing face coverings, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing, etc.) were easier to implement, but more difficult to enforce.
“Fatigue and low morale are real challenges that institutions are facing everywhere. It’s been a long year, and people are tired of the restrictions in everything they do, both professionally and personally. But we have all put so much work into having our students back and in person this fall that we need to appreciate that all these protocols have worked. We need to keep it up.”
Niese is looking ahead to spring semester now as the University seeks to build on a successful fall. However, the rates of infection throughout the state and country are reaching their highest levels. Back in March, the hope was that COVID-19 would be under control world-wide and that many of the remediations and protocols here on campus would no longer be needed after Christmas. Now Niese and her team are planning through May 2021 and beyond.
“The University has remained cautious and keeps the health and safety of students, faculty and staff the number one priority, followed closely by the need to continue in-person education,” she says. “It’s what makes Ohio Northern, Ohio Northern.”