A dining staff member at Andrews Commons prepares online orders for students. Photo: Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Date November 19, 2020
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Staff members lend creativity, commitment to Brown’s pandemic response

Employees from across the University have redefined their roles to address challenges arising from the ongoing pandemic, supporting world-class teaching, research and student opportunities.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the eight months since SARS-CoV-2 first appeared on college and university campuses across the U.S., the virus has transformed higher education — perhaps most markedly by redefining what it means for students to live and learn as members of a campus community, and for faculty to teach and conduct research.

At Brown, the many changes to instruction, scholarship and student life that have unfolded since last spring have all been supported by more than 3,000 staff members who have approached the myriad challenges presented by the pandemic with flexibility, dedication and creativity — critical elements in minimizing virus spread on campus, ensuring a world-class educational experience for students and sustaining the continuity of research.

Countless staff have helped to build a comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy that has completed 120,134 tests to date. Others are dedicated contract tracers. Employees are pitching in to implement new protocols for cleaning campus spaces or assisting faculty in creating digital content for remote courses. Many are out and about on campus, promoting healthy COVID behaviors.

"Brown is incredibly fortunate to have talented staff members who work tirelessly to deliver exceptional learning, research and campus living experiences,” said Brown President Christina H. Paxson. “This has never been more evident than over the course of the pandemic, when staff across many departments have taken on new responsibilities to keep the University thriving despite the inevitable challenges that COVID-19 has created. We are extremely grateful for their outstanding contributions.” 

Many staff members have supported University efforts by participating in programs created to address specific challenges that COVID-19 presents. Roughly 70 staff members, for example, have become Healthy Ambassadors, a role in which they encourage fellow Brown community members to practice behaviors that adhere to health and safety protocols. Others from a range of departments — from Athletics to Print Services to the Office of International Programs — have participated in the Staff Temporary Project Assignment Program, which matches staff members available to help during this time of pandemic with units at Brown that need support.

But the efforts of employees have also spanned established campus departments and divisions, where staff members of all ranks have reimagined the way they fulfill their responsibilities, or temporarily taken on new roles, to meet the unique needs arising from the pandemic.

As Brown closes out a fall term and prepares to welcome more students back to campus in the spring, four staff members shared their experiences and perspectives on the ways they have redefined their roles to address the challenges presented by COVID-19.

Amber Jackson: From team travel to tracking testing

Strategic planning. Communication. Flexibility. Meticulous organization and attention to detail. These are skills that Amber Jackson calls upon regularly in her position as manager of team travel for 34 varsity teams — and hundreds of student athletes — within Brown Athletics.

These same skills made her the ideal candidate to lead Brown’s student COVID-19 testing follow-up team. Created as part of the University-wide testing and contact tracing program, this 17-member team tracks student compliance with mandatory COVID-19 testing and reaches out to those who need help meeting requirements.

“Our students are active stakeholders in the campus and surrounding communities. I’ve been very happy to see that so many of them — from our medical students to graduate students to undergraduates — have really bought into this. They have done a great job of being responsible and holding each other accountable.”

Amber Jackson Athletics Travel Manager, Head of Student COVID-19 Testing Follow-Up Team
Amber Jackson

With athletic team travel on hold for the fall, as all Ivy League sports competition remains paused, Jackson has dedicated her work weeks — and many a weekend — to ensuring that this charge is being met.

“We need to do what we need to do to ensure the safety of our students, our campus and the surrounding community,” she said.

In leading the team, Jackson oversees communication with students who miss their twice-weekly COVID-19 tests or daily check-ins on Brown’s symptom tracking app. She also monitors testing and symptom tracking data to identify patterns of noncompliance that require a follow-up from colleagues in Campus Life. 

“Our job is to make sure there is communication across the board, to find out whether a student who missed a test needs help, and to educate students on the importance of compliance,” she said. 

Most students express thanks when members of her team reach out, Jackson said. But her biggest takeaway is just how many students at Brown have been fully committed to the program from the start. 

“Our students are active stakeholders in the campus and surrounding communities,” she said. “I’ve been very happy to see that so many of them — from our medical students to graduate students to undergraduates — have really bought into this. They have done a great job of being responsible and holding each other accountable.” 

Robert Noyes: Contactless dining with a personal touch

COVID-19 hasn’t changed what Robert Noyes contributes to the Brown community, but rather how he does it. 

As assistant director of retail dining, Noyes typically divides his time between overseeing day-to-day operations for Brown’s retail dining locations — which include Andrews Commons, the Blue Room and Josiah’s, as well as small grab-and-go kiosks across campus — and developing long-term plans for dining services and menus.

After suspending retail dining in response to the pandemic, the University opted to reopen just Andrews Commons to students this fall. But its prior open-kitchen concept — in which students and chefs discuss daily offerings and special requests as meals were prepared, in real time, at various prep stations around the dining space — needed to be reimagined to meet the health and safety needs arising from COVID-19.

“The challenge was how to give students that face-to-face-Andrews experience while keeping our students and our staff safe,” Noyes said.

The answer? To deliver these daily specials and custom-order options via a virtual ordering platform. Using a downloadable app linked to students’ meal plan accounts, Noyes and his dining colleagues created a contactless dining experience with a personal touch.  

Together, they configured the app to enable students to customize any of the food options available at Andrews. The staff has also gotten creative with the menu, offering new dishes and old favorites through daily “pop-up specials” that appear when students log in to the app. 

The most popular special so far: the “Spicy With,” a signature chicken sandwich usually served at Josiah’s, which is now closed: “The first time we featured it as a special, people were literally coming in clapping, thanking us for bringing it back,” Noyes said.

For a retail dining team driven by a desire to deliver the best customer experience possible, there could be no better reward, he added. 

“Together we worked really hard — the culinary team, the front of the house staff, the customer service staff — on how to still give students a fun experience,” he said. “We want them to keep coming back. We want to keep them happy.”

Steven Lewis: Support for student residents and facilities

A longtime Brown staff member, Steven Lewis had been officially serving in his new role as housing services manager for Residential Life for barely a month when COVID-19 cases began to spread across Rhode Island.  

The position had been created to serve as a liaison between students living in residence halls and Facilities Management on an array of projects, including managing room repair requests, preparing residence halls for incoming students and overseeing on-the-ground operations during move-in weekends.

Steven Lewis
Steven Lewis, housing services manager for Residence Life, has organized multiple move-ins this fall to accommodate Brown's phased approach to welcoming students back to campus. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

Lewis’s responsibilities quickly intensified to accommodate the changes to residence life necessitated by the pandemic. When students departed campus abruptly in March, he helped them clear their rooms and store items that they couldn’t bring on last-minute flights. During the summer, he managed housing needs for students who stayed on campus because the pandemic made it unsafe to travel home. He earned a 2020 Campus Life Staff Excellence Award in recognition of the impact of that work.

More recently, to accommodate Brown’s phased approach to resuming in-person operations this fall, Lewis orchestrated multiple student move-ins this fall. For each of these move-ins, he managed a set of procedures designed to reduce risks to health and safety while helping students navigate new campus norms. He managed a moving company during each move-in day, helped students and families move belongings and distributed nearly 3,000 microfridges and 80,000 moving boxes to residence halls across campus. 

“It’s all to make this tough time easier for the students,” Lewis said. 

With in-person student activities reduced as a pandemic precaution, Lewis has also taken on jobs that students used to fulfill, such as moving belongings out from storage and managing the key office.

These duties mean extra work hours — “student residents don’t leave campus at 5 p.m. on Fridays,” Lewis noted, and the added responsibilities are worth it.

 “I just want everyone to be happy and safe around me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sunthorn Pond-Tor: Fighting infectious disease, from malaria to COVID-19

For Sunthorn Pond-Tor, the call to help fight the pandemic came not from Brown, but from the Rhode Island Department of Health.

When COVID-19 first arrived in the U.S., the state’s health department found itself in competition with other states to purchase testing materials for its growing number of infections. One of the missing materials? Viral transport medium, a chemical solution that the swabs used in COVID-19 tests must be placed into after a sample is taken for testing.

So they called upon the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Kurtis, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, for help creating the solution from scratch. 

Pond-Tor, who manages the lab, played a central role in creating the solution — first tracking down the CDC-specified materials needed to make it, and then, with the help of his laboratory colleagues, mixing the solution by hand and preparing it in the individual vials that would be used for each test sample. By April, the laboratory had made roughly 20 liters of the solution — enough for roughly 6,500 tests.

“It was a lot of work, but I knew that the community really needed them,” he said.

With Rhode Island now past the scramble for testing materials that it suffered this spring, the Kurtis lab has been able to return to its promising research fighting another infectious killer: malaria. 

It is work that carries personal meaning for Pond-Tor, who saw many people die of the disease — and survived it himself — as a child growing up in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime. “Every day, a lot of kids still die from malaria,” he said. “If I can be part of the team that eradicates this disease, I’ll be very happy.”

Even as Pond-Tor dives back into the laboratory’s malaria research, he is prepared to again help the Rhode Island community in its fight against COVID-19, should the opportunity arise: “If they need me again, I’m ready.”