Custodians Come Through

Moore Residence Hall was dedicated in October 1929—the day after the stock market crashed.

 Today it has a new role in a new historical upheaval, as one of the “3-M dorms” (along with Morrow and Morris Pratt) each housing some of the 160 or so students who’ve stayed on campus during the pandemic.

Moore Hall

The exterior of Moore Hall—Photo by Henry Amistadi.

And what’s keeping Moore going, in large part, are its custodians. We spoke to one pair, Ath Chea and Patrick Connell, assigned to work in this sole building (though Chea also helps clean and disinfect Keefe Health Center). Before March, Connell was assigned to Kirby and Holden theaters and Alumni Gymnasium at night after home games. “Staying in the one building the whole time—that’s different,” he says of his current duties.

The pair disinfect Moore’s seven bathrooms twice a day with a Hillyard C-3 machine, a state-of-the-art institutional cleaning system. It’s a thick cart on wheels, royal blue in color, standing about 4 feet tall and containing three elements: Suprox, a peroxide-based cleaner; Re-Juv-Nal, a disinfectant registered with the EPA to combat COVID-19; plus fresh water to rinse. All liquids are sprayed with a pressure-washer nozzle.

Chea has been at the College for almost 20 years, but Connell just since 2019. Connell is grateful that Chea has “taught me lots of tricks of the trade.”

Six pairs of custodians work five days on, five days off at the 3-Ms. Chea and Connell also clean and disinfect the common areas in Moore, where students can gather at a social distance. The two wear masks and gloves at all times, and goggles when necessary. They maintain social distance but are able to talk as they work. What do they talk about? “Everything,” says Chea: “My background, his background, my family, his family.”

Four members of the custodial staff post together

(l to r): Auth Chea, Huy Tan, Ryan Furches, Sokpeth Ding pose
together on campus in early March—Photo by Jiayi Liu.

Meanwhile, the College’s custodial staff continues to clean designated rooms in the uninhabited dorms, in case a student should need to quarantine. They also sanitize the academic and administrative buildings that remain open on campus.

The students in Moore thank the custodians all the time, says Connell: “They say ‘Hi! How are you doing? How do you feel? Your family’s safe? Are you safe?’”

Adds Chea, “We are happy to be working here. We respect all the students; they respect us. They are happy to see us and see us cleaning for them.” — Katharine Whittemore

Valor at Val

A sign in front of Valentine Hall thanking amherst college dining and other essential staff for keeping the campus safe
Valentine Hall has remained open with minimal staff in order to take care of the students who are still on campus—Photos by Amanda Huhmann

During a “normal” semester, when a hungry member of the College community stops at Valentine Dining Hall, checker Joan Slocombe might swipe their ID card and chat about the weekend’s soccer game. Server Sue Barnard might offer her customary “What can I get you?” and then dish up poke bowls or mac and cheese.

Those specific interactions with the women vanished in March, when Amherst closed campus to all but a few students and essential staffers. Dining Services Director Joe Flueckiger implemented a carry-out food model for those who continue to live in the dorms, plus essential staff on shift (whose meals are now gratis, in gratitude).

Barnard and Slocombe are also essential, helping to feed the students, and have remained on campus at some—though minimal, given the safety measures the College has put in place—risk to their own health. Each one has taken her work to the next level by expressing extra care for the students who couldn’t leave.

Thank you sign for front line staff
Slocombe is memorizing the names of all of those 160 or so residents. And Barnard is giving students handwritten notes expressing support. President Biddy Martin lauded their actions (without revealing their names) in her April 10 letter to the community.

Asked if she has achieved her memorization goal, Slocombe answers that the requirement that people wear masks on campus is derailing her efforts since she can’t see students’ faces. When pushed to estimate the number of names she did learn, Slocombe begins listing off students (“T—, L—, C—, G—, M—, S—...”) before being stopped by this reporter at a dozen. (We wish we could print full names so you’d also be impressed by Slocombe’s memory feat, but we aren’t, for the sake of the students’ privacy.)

Slocombe says she tries to be extra cheerful and warm when she provides students with their meals, because some students “are really down.” She recalls a conversation with one diner recently: “When I asked him what he wanted—meaning food, of course—he just said, ‘Hope, Joan.’ And I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

“This has been an extraordinary time for Dining Services,” notes Flueckiger. “Joan and Sue have really made special efforts to bring smiles to the faces of our students during such a difficult time. I am so proud of them and all of our staff members who continue to step up with an incredible sense of dedication to our students.” — Caroline Hanna

Police Story

Sign indicating that the campus athletic facilities are closed

A sign on campus notifying the public of current closures—Photos by Michael Reid

Under shutdown, it’s a quiet campus, but still, a campus that needs daily protection, says John Carter, chief of the Amherst College Police Department and director of public safety.

With few students on campus, the normal workload of the ACPD is down. “But at the same time, we still have well over a thousand acres of campus and close to a hundred facilities that someone needs to keep an eye on, particularly in the evening and overnight hours,” Carter says.

Signs on Amherst College campus indicating access restrictions during coronavirus closings
While there’s much less going on throughout campus and in town, Amherst College isn’t totally quiet. In addition to essential personnel such as dining hall workers and custodians, about a dozen people a day check-in with the police department to be allowed in on College-related business.

For instance, in the Science Center, “the animals have to be fed and the plants have to be watered,” Carter says. “Or it could be that someone forgot a vital piece of equipment that they need to teach a class.”

Unofficial visits to campus, especially folks accessing the bike path, continue unabated.

This is fine, says the chief. What’s not fine is when groups gather on the athletic fields. The College has taken down nets and covered up sporting equipment. Signs posted throughout campus warn that group activities are not allowed, and require visitors to wear masks and maintain proper social distance.

Says Carter, “If you and one of your family members are walking through campus, that’s fine. But if a group gathers to play a pickup game of soccer or flag football or something like that, we ask them to leave.”

There are some more cheery moments, however. Officer Jessica Kirby spotted this skittish visitor in front of Converse. And the ACPD and the College’s Environmental Health and Safety staff recently participated in a vehicular parade with the teachers of Woodside Children’s Center and the town’s police and fire departments. Beeps and cheers filled the air. —Bill Sweet

They’ve Got Mail

Staff member transporting a box

Chris O’Neil, from the Campus Post Office, helping to keep
mail and packages moving across campus in early March
—Photo by Jiayi Liu.

While keeping to the adage that nothing stops the mail, in the face of COVID-19 precautions, Amherst College’s Post Office has had to undergo some tweaks in order to get mail to students, faculty and staff.

 The flow of packages is now a tiny fraction of the 60,000 shipped to campus during a typical year, but there are still some left to be handled, says Postmaster Donald Kells. Much of the mail delivery is in the mode you’d see during summer break: first-class mail addressed to individual students is simply being forwarded to their home addresses.

For students still on campus, the Facilities department has worked out a system where packages shipped to campus are dropped off at Keefe Campus Center and delivered to the dorms by the custodians who work in those buildings.

A sign thanking Amherst staff for all of their hard work
“It’s old-school now,” says Kells. “Basically, the package comes in, we’ll write on the package ‘Moore Dorm Room 213,’ and then we’ll put it in a bucket for them to pick it up.”

He notes that he applies disinfectant, too: “I’ll spray all the packages down before we give them to the students. I’ll actually do that twice, when I receive them and then right before Facilities picks them up in the morning.”

The College’s academic and administrative departments have each appointed a representative to receive, either by pickup or by direct mail, all the mail that would, under normal conditions, be delivered to their building.

A few departments, such as the Library, Information Technology and Facilities itself, still get deliveries from the Post Office’s remaining skeleton crew, down to three people after the departure of student workers.

Kells notices that people have a new appreciation for things that often would go without comment in the past, like getting a package in the mail.

“A lot of people are thanking me,” he says. “I’m seeing a different side. It’s kind of nice.” —Bill Sweet

On-the-Ground Care

A view of Johnson Chapel in the spring time

Photo by Michael Reid

Massachusetts may be shut down, but the flowering trees and newly lush grass seem blissfully unaware. COVID-19 “certainly hasn’t slowed down the growth on the campus,” observes Mick Koldy, director of auxiliary services. The pink cherry blossoms in the Greenway and the dazzling forsythias outside Chapin attest to that.

In a typical spring, Amherst’s 14 Buildings and Grounds employees would focus on beautifying the campus and maintaining its athletic fields ahead of commencement weekend. But this hasn’t been a typical spring. Only four staff can work together (apart!) on campus on any given day, and Grounds Supervisor Kenny Lauzier has to prioritize tasks that are both safe and practical.

For example: in the next few weeks, the grounds staff will spread nearly 1,200 bags of fertilizer over 100 acres of grass. It’s a big job, but one that happens to lend itself to social distancing. And with the campus containing far fewer people and cars, it’s simpler to plan tree-pruning projects.

Staff member mowing the lawn on the Amherst College campus

Photo by Maria Stenzel

Other landscaping jobs will be deferred to save money. Only the most recent campus plantings will get new mulch this year. The Gooding Field renovation project has been postponed.

But grounds staff have been anything but idle. Since March, they have assisted the students who are self-quarantining on campus. Lauzier’s team delivered mini-fridges and moved students’ belongings multiple times. They helped clean buildings and delivered mail.

Other essential workers have stepped outside their regular duties, too. “It really is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Lauzier says. 

Adds Koldy, “It doesn’t matter what their role is—electrician or grounds person—they put down their tool belts or rakes and did what they needed to do to help the community.” — Mary Elizabeth Strunk

Appreciating the Essentials

A sign in front of the Science Center that reads essential awesome

Signs of appreciation popped up on campus—Photo by Amanda Huhmann

While many employees do their jobs remotely, those who must remain on the front lines in hospitals, grocery stores, nursing homes and other workplaces nationwide are being hailed as heroes. In fact, there’s a push for Congress’ next relief bill to include hazard pay raises for these workers.

In that spirit, Amherst’s Office of Human Resources made known back in March that hourly staff would be paid a 25 percent premium beyond their usual wages for any essential work they are required to perform on campus.

Some 170 employees are receiving premium pay weekly, including (but not limited to) staff from Dining Services, Custodial Services and other Facilities departments. Each department has seen significant changes—and, in many cases, intensifications—in their responsibilities, all of it work that cannot be accomplished from afar.

Many Facilities employees first learned of the premium pay raise on the March morning when they worked together to move students’ belongings from their previous dorm rooms to the three that are now open for those who need to remain on campus.

Custodial Supervisor Heidi Kellogg, who was there when Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord delivered the news of the pay premiums, recalls how staff received the announcement: “Oh my gosh, they were overwhelmed, really taken aback. First and foremost, they were so grateful that the College is keeping them here and working. And this was like icing on the cake.”

One custodian, Chard Houn, expressed his feelings this way, recalls Kellogg: “He came up to me and he goes, ‘If I could hug you, I would right now.’”

The premium pay policy will remain in effect at least until May 24, and is being reassessed as the College’s operational needs evolve. Mick Koldy, director of auxiliary services/facilities, says these staffers “appreciate the extra pay but more so the recognition in performing their work under difficult conditions.” 

—Katherine Duke ‘05 and Katharine Whittemore