Holding down the fort: Faculty, staff visit campus during HM Online

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Devin Allard-Neptune and Liliana Greyf

 

On a normal morning, Public Safety Specialist Glenn Smith would greet hundreds of community members from his seat at the school’s front desk. Since the end of in-person classes in November, however, Smith has had a lot less waving to do. Yet Olshan Lobby is not entirely empty. Throughout HM Online 2.0, various members of public safety, facilities management, school staff, and teachers have spent their work days on Tibbett Avenue.

In late November when classes transitioned online, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly sent teachers a Google Form asking which days they would be most likely to come into campus and which rooms they hoped to use during their time online. Now, on the mornings of each of their planned arrivals, teachers must email Director of Public Safety Mike McCaw and Director of Facilities Management Gordon Jensen to let them know of their upcoming visit. 

Once on campus, teachers work remotely from classrooms, and members of facilities staff thoroughly clean those areas afterwards. Teachers are still required to abide by standard procedures, math teacher Meghan Fergusson said. “We all wear masks,” she said. “We don’t leave our enclosed zones. We still take it very seriously.”

English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger has been working remotely from campus every day of the week since the end of winter break, mostly because it is psychologically easier for him. “I like the feeling of going somewhere in the morning to work and then coming home and being home from work in the evening,” he said. Because he drives his children to their school nearby, it is also easy for him to commute to and from campus regularly.

“There’s something about having a physical separation between home and work,” Math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis said. “I don’t really like to work at home — even if it means I have to stay late at school, I try to finish all my work there so I can go home and just sort of be there.”

This separation can also limit interruptions from family members during class. Math teacher Linda Itani’s two-year old daughter has occasionally interrupted some of her lessons, which makes it hard for Itani to teach, she said. “I want to take advantage of the 45 minutes of class time and be able to answer questions and provide my students with a good class, so it can be kind of hard at home.”

When she spends the day teaching from campus, Itani finds that she is considerably more productive in her classroom than she is at home. Although she is fortunate to have an office at home, Itani said the work environment and solitude that she finds in her classroom allows her to stay motivated throughout the school day. “When I’m at school, there’s nothing else I can do but work,” she said.

Kafoglis experiences a similar shift in focus. “I have an association with my home that tells me to watch TV, or play a video game, or read a book, so it’s harder for me to focus,” Kafoglis said. “When I’m at school, I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m here at work,’ so I’m less distractible.”

A separation from personal life definitely helps with productivity, Dean of Students and science teacher Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. “Both my husband and I are working from home in a one-bedroom apartment, and so it’s nice to be able to give each other a little bit of space every once in a while so that we aren’t on top of each other all the time.” 

When one of his classes is meeting synchronously on Zoom, Fippinger moves from his seat in the English office to the classroom in which he normally teaches. However, he does not alter his teaching methods to the room. “If I want to have the effect of a whiteboard, I still just project something on Zoom,” he said. “It’s simply a psychological quirk for me — I go into the classroom as if I were teaching a class in person, open my Zoom, teach the class, and then I leave and come back to my office.”

Wallenfang also enjoys the mental benefits of physically coming to campus. “It can make you a little bit stir crazy sitting in the same chair all day long,” he said. “It’s nice to just have a change of environment, be able to get up and walk to the subway and walk up the hill.” 

Fergusson comes to school simply to experience a change of pace, she said. “I go in to break up the monotony of being in the same physical location all the time. I find that being in a different location physically is actually meaningful — you can be transported in a way.”

Because the school is currently so empty, with only a couple of people on each floor at a given time, Fippinger has found it easier to concentrate on his work than he would on a regular school week. “It’s distracting to be at work [normally] when I want to talk with my colleagues or with students who pop in and out of my office,” he said. Now, however, Fippinger sits alone at his desk, able to focus on the tasks at hand.

While this may be helpful for his work, the emptiness of the school is not entirely positive, Fippinger said. He sometimes jokes with his colleagues about how they are more productive in an empty school. “It’s almost like I don’t want to stop working because if I think too much about how empty it is here, I’ll get really sad,” he said. 

Math teacher Brianne Gzik said the lack of students and teachers on campus is a stark change. “It’s sad to not see everybody out there and seeing kids playing frisbee on the field,” she said. “All of the students are why I love teaching here and love teaching in general.”

It is sometimes sad to be at school without the students, Fergusson said. “You go in and see evidence of something you really miss,” she said. “You have all these memories, but it’s totally empty. All the joy and fun and excitement is completely gone.” 

Although library assistant Sandra Duran comes to school once a week to mail and scan books to community members, she does not usually see anyone on campus, she said. “It looks sad to me,” she said. “Everything is so quiet, and you rarely bump into anyone.”

Even though there are still other people on campus, specifically those who work in the Deans’ office, Wallenfang does not socialize with other faculty members while teaching on campus, he said. “We really don’t see much of each other because of distancing,” he said. “We just go to our own offices and close the doors.” 

The school is not the same when students are not present, Wallenfang said. “The most eerie thing is that the main field is completely barren and empty. Crossing over to Lutnick, it’s just completely dead.” 

The lack of students has changed the way the Facilities Management team does its job, maintenance member Jimmy Ostuni said. In a regular year, students would be present as Ostuni sorted through recycling or picked up trash. Because most community members are at home, Ostuni has much less cleaning to do, he said.

While students are not at school, maintenance is working on projects around campus that they normally would not be able to do during a normal school day, Maintenance Supervisor Dan DeCecco said. This includes renovating and painting classrooms and maintaining equipment around the school.

However, there are more challenging tasks that the pandemic has created for Ostuni. During these weeks of online school, members of maintenance must construct and improve the protective equipment, such as glass barriers and air filters, in classrooms. 

During a normal winter break, Ostuni and his coworkers would change carpeting, check drains, and fix heating systems in preparation for the new semester. This year, the holiday recess was more quiet — Ostuni simply continued his regularly-scheduled orders of fixing broken lights and cleaning on and around the campus. Only now, three weeks past the beginning of school, has Ostuni begun preparing for the arrival of students. This year, preparation involves bringing furniture into the outdoor tents, changing filters in the air systems, and ensuring that all PPE is functioning properly, he said.

In preparation, DeCecco said the maintenance crew reorganized the campus to accommodate the cold weather and the places students used while school was in-person. “It was looking back at the fall, seeing what was used and what wasn’t used and tweaking it,” he said. 

This year, preparation includes rearranging tents and eating areas around campus, DeCecco said. Some tents that were not used during the fall on Alumni Field have been removed, and additional eating areas have been added so students can eat indoors during the winter.

Other than these few changes, the majority of the preparation has been returning campus to how it was before school went remote. Over the last few weeks, the maintenance crew has returned the furniture to the tents, set up the food service stations, and added desks and new dividers in classrooms, DeCecco said.

The role of the Public and Safety Department, which is currently present on campus, has not changed since the transition to virtual school, Director of Public Safety Mike McCaw said. “The school wants us to be fully operational, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. The department is currently operating as it normally would, and each member of Public Safety is positioned where they would be while students are present. 

While school is not in session, McCaw arrives at campus before six am and works with the Public Safety team to check the school’s security systems. McCaw spends the rest of the day in meetings and doing administrative work for his department.

The biggest difference for Public Safety while campus is closed involves managing  traffic outside of the school, McCaw said. At the beginning of the year, the Public Safety Department hired more public safety officers to manage the influx of cars and buses due to social-distancing restrictions. However, while students are not commuting to school, there is no need for the officers to come to school every day, McCaw said. 

As preparation for the reopening of the school, the Public Safety Department has to ensure that these part-time officers can safely return to campus. The new officers must test negative for COVID-19, and their schedules as police officers must correlate with the school’s dismissal times, McCaw said. 

During HM Online around 60 administrators, Public Safety, Facilities, Flik staff, IT staff, support staff and faculty members go to campus every day, McCaw said. Compared to the 2,000 students and faculty normally on campus, the job of a member of the Public Safety Department is a lot smaller than what it normally would be, McCaw said. “It’s a microcosm of what goes on, but still it’s enough to keep people engaged.”

Although many feel that they are creating a barrier between their homes and their jobs, there is not one overarching reason that teachers have been choosing to come to campus over the last few weeks.

Gzik’s daily commute has been made much easier with the option to teach remotely from campus, she said. Gzik has a son who attends preschool in the area, and before there was an option to teach remotely from campus, she spent two hours commuting to the Bronx from Queens. Now that she can spend the day at school, she has more time to work and plan for lessons, she said.

The school is currently offering on-campus child care for teachers with young children, an option that science teacher Dr. Jane Wesely has taken advantage of. She has come to school a few times in order to work in a classroom while her children are watched nearby. 

In addition, some teachers have chosen to work from their physical classrooms because of the resources available to them there, Wallenfang said. He comes to school on the two days a week when he teaches class synchronously, he said. 

“The internet is reliable on campus, and the whiteboards are great to have,” he said. “I have tried teaching using the iPad and Apple Pencil, but generally speaking, it is easier and more dynamic to use a whiteboard.” 

Math teacher Charles Worrall has also found that it benefits his advanced classes to use the large whiteboard in his classroom at school as opposed to the smaller one at his home. “There’s often a moment where you’ve got everything laid out on the board and it’s just nice to see it all at once,” he said. 

Wesely also came to school a few times in order to have access to various lab supplies that were given to students before they left campus. “I showed them what the basic setup of the lab was using the materials I found at school,” she said.

Teaching from her classroom allows Itani to teach without potential technological issues that might occur at home. “Sometimes my internet is spotty and I will have a class where everyone is frozen and I have to keep checking in making sure they can hear me,” she said. “When that happens, it’s distracting and it takes up time.” When teaching at school, Itani does not have to worry about the wifi cutting out in the middle of class, she said. 

Kafoglis realized that while at school, he has access to numerous textbooks, a perk which allows him to be more creative while planning lessons. “If I need some inspiration, I often turn to those other books,” he said. “It’s been really helpful to have those.” 

Although Fergusson has been grateful for her workspace, she is excited to have students back on campus, she said. “The power of this building is the people in it. I’m excited to have everyone back.”