Boston College students have struggled this academic year through the lack of breaks, restrictions on gatherings, and the loss of traditions that are integral to the BC experience. Several aspects of campus life have been altered, but one thing remained constant—the dedication of BC’s essential employees.
Through the fluctuating COVID-19 protocols, BC’s essential workers—from dining services to COVID-19 testing to custodial services—have been crucial to ensuring that the BC community remains safe, while trying their best to preserve a sense of normalcy on campus.
In early March last year, students returned from Spring Break to preliminary protocol changes in response to COVID-19. BC Dining was forced to adapt quickly as the CDC continually released new information.
The elimination of self-serve food stations was one of the first changes students witnessed, but it certainly wasn’t the last. When the majority of the student body evacuated by March 15, there were approximately 500 students remaining on campus through the end of the semester. BC Dining’s biggest challenge was trying to keep students and employees safe while getting students fed, according to Ryan Palanza, assistant manager of BC Dining Services at McElroy Commons.
For custodial staff, there was disorder in the wake of the move-out week. Taking care of the belongings students left behind often fell to the custodial staff, custodian Sherrise Trim said.
When the students remaining on campus were moved to Upper Campus, custodian Elisabeth Figueiredo and other custodians were assigned to keep these dorms as clean as possible. During a typical eight-hour shift, Figueiredo would cycle through all Upper residence halls three or four times, she said.
Custodian Derrick Anacleto works in 2150 Commonwealth Ave., as well as University Health Services (UHS). As BC began to see its first cases of COVID-19 among students still on campus last spring, the uncertainty of virus transmission made it unsettling to be working so closeby, Anacleto said.
Last March was charged with anxious uncertainty about what the future would hold, Figueiredo said, but even so, the work of custodians and BC Dining workers never stopped.
“We’ve been doing a lot. We haven’t stopped [in]… over a year,” Trim said. “We haven’t stopped since March. … It’s, like, an ongoing thing. Gotta keep going.”
Custodian Noel Mathias said he was committed to doing what was needed and continuing the cleaning work that he was already so accustomed to.
“[It was] different but the same thing,” Mathias said. “Cleaning is cleaning.”
While COVID-19’s rapid escalation last spring necessitated a quick response from BC’s essential workers, the difficulties of the quick transition had a silver lining—they were helpful in preparing for the 2020-21 academic year.
“Right at the end of the semester, we learned so much about how we could make this whole school year work, so it was kind of a trial run for this year,” Palanza said.
The learning curve did not stop last spring, though. Over the summer, BC administration and UHS prepared for students to return to campus in August. Knowing that requiring COVID-19 testing for the student body and faculty was going to be vital to remaining on campus for the entire semester, employees in athletics and human resources were tasked with helping to fill these essential roles.
Associate Athletics Director for Marketing and Fan Engagement Jamie Di Loreto, has worked in BC Athletics for the past 28 years. Typically, his job consists of promoting the 31 varsity sports, overseeing and coordinating corporate sponsorships for athletics, and advertising BC sports and game day experiences, he said.
Starting in August, like many members of the BC Athletics team, Di Loreto’s job expanded to include working in COVID-19 testing.
“I think it was around that time period in August when they were looking for who could assist,” he said. “We were already here in the facilities managing a lot of the operations that were taking place whether being [in] Conte Forum when it was the return to campus in the winter or the startup in the fall … over at Connell, so it just was a natural fit.”
Employees were quick to embrace this new role in the fall, Jade Morris, senior associate director for student athlete development, said.
“It was just kind of understood that this is what we needed to get our feet back under us and be successful,” Morris said. “And it’s gonna require you rolling up your sleeves and doing a little something a little different, so it was just kind of understood, like, ‘Here’s what we need.’”
BC Dining also had to adjust its operations in response to COVID-19 ahead of the fall semester, with changes ranging from the menu to the way in which it serves food.
A team of BC Dining employees held frequent meetings over the summer to figure out how to efficiently serve food to students, according to Marlon Mazier, first cook at McElroy Commons.
“They went over the menus from all the [dining locations] … to choose what were the best menus and come up with a way … to really make the food somewhat similar to what we had and serve it in a timely manner,” Mazier said.
For Di Loreto, his experience working in athletics helped with the unknown nature of COVID-19, he said.
“I think the hardest part is the unknown, and the days are usually [unknown] within athletics, we work a lot at nights and weekends so we’re used to it,” he said. “It was still, you know, how do we facilitate and operate and run, and it was just curveballs and challenges, constantly, logistically … it was very difficult to plan for anything and the unknown and the unplanned was normal, very normal.”
COVID-19 testers originally worked one full-day shift per week at the beginning of the fall semester. Eventually, their schedules were cut down to a half shift a week, which is about four to five hours, Di Loreto said. Their responsibilities vary from checking in students and staff at the door or checking them in at a laptop and printing out their label, Morris said.
“Checking in people and printing their label … it’s completely out of like the realm of my job responsibilities, but I think in a unique situation like COVID, everybody kind of has to roll up their sleeves and do whatever job needs to be done to make sure that we’re all here, safe, and can be at Boston College together,” Morris said.
Although working in COVID-19 testing increased their workload, it provided a new way to connect with students and colleagues, Di Loreto said.
“It’s very special when … you have this really week-to-week connection with certain people [that] were coming in,” Di Loreto said. “Your odds of getting them were one in five but one of the tables, but I would see the same people … We haven’t seen a lot of our colleagues around campus so the one place I could really feel that I could see people was … over there with the testing.”
Because of the repetitive nature of their work, incorporating creative ways to keep from becoming fatigued has been important, he said.
“It’s very repetitive so if you don’t get creative with the way you’re doing things I think it could really I think start to burn people out,” Di Loreto said. “Our field definitely is like, ‘How do we have fun with this? How do we connect with people?’ and … for us it’s very much about customer service, so it was a lot of fun doing it.”
For custodial staff, the main changes included diligence about wearing masks and gloves, as well as increased cleaning protocols in certain areas, according to Mathias.
“Whenever you see someone, it’s hard to recognize because of the mask,” Mathias said. “But the job is the same thing … [with] disinfecting. Everything else is the same thing … the thing is that there’s more disinfecting.”
For Anacleto, working in UHS—where he is in close contact with symptomatic students—also necessitated an increased diligence, he said. Additionally, wearing a mask while doing physical labor and being increasingly cautious of his surroundings made the work more difficult, he said.
Another difficulty stems from hearing that members of custodial staff have tested positive.
“I would say that would probably be the hardest part is wondering, ‘Well, how did they get it?’” Figueiredo said. “It gets into your head.”
The custodial department has implemented a number of changes to both keep students safe and help employees feel safe. Among the changes was the hiring of additional staff who work from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., spraying high-touch surfaces around campus so that other custodians can focus on being thorough with their usual tasks, Trim said.
After her 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, Trim would often pick up overtime shifts, which could take her to Lower, Middle, Upper, or Newton campus, she said.
For Anacleto, another change implemented by department management was the designation of a new closet for his cleaning supplies since his previous one was next to the COVID-19 holding rooms within UHS. Half of Anacleto’s supplies went into this new closet, helping him maintain distance from symptomatic students, which helped him continue feeling safe, he said.
“When it was getting busy, I would have no business being down there because I can get all my supplies from the other side,” Anacleto said. “The communication was good … they let us know if [the students] were negative or positive, so you know how to handle it.”
Despite the unprecedented nature of adapting the University to a pandemic, Figueiredo said that she is pleased with the University’s efforts.
“It’s been an experience … dealing with something that no one’s dealt with, but we’ve gone through it,” Figueiredo said. “BC’s been there the whole entire time just trying to do the best they possibly can.”
In previous years, BC Dining offered students self-serve options and students could roam between stations, creating a closely packed environment. BC Dining has responded to COVID-19 by implementing stationed lines, having less food options, and limiting contact with employees—all to ensure the safety of the students.
“Things used to be a little more exciting because you could wander around wherever you wanted, now you have to stay in your lane … I think the quality of the food is the same, but there used to be more variety,” Palanza said.
Mazier said the changes to the menu and the way in which they serve the food posed challenges, especially because a lot of the food was previously cooked to order, he said. Mazier is in charge of breakfast and lunch, coordinating menus, and delegating the work. In order to limit the time students spent getting their food and ensure social distancing, BC Dining had to rearrange the menus, Mazier said.
“It’s difficult because, at first, we were not sure [what the students] were gonna like, how they were gonna take it, what was gonna be the big hit,” Mazier said. “So, it was a lot of guessing and waiting to see. So, what we were doing management wise … [was] looking at the numbers week to week and writing down in a diagram, like, amounts, the specific amounts for [types of food] that we have, so that way we have an idea, and we’re not getting all this leftover food that goes to waste.”
As a result of BC Dining’s operational changes, several employees’ jobs had to change as well.
“Everyone’s position here has really just changed, … which is good, you know, because we’re all now just working together. … Everyone’s playing a part in different parts,” Alexander Orrego, utility worker for BC Dining at McElroy Commons, said.
Orrego picked up more tasks in the transition to this year. Previously, he was a utility worker—he washed dishes, took out trash, and sorted things out for chefs and cooks, he said. With the increase in popularity of GET Mobile last semester, his workload expanded—he now makes orders, prints order slips, and distributes prepared orders.
“[Running GET Mobile] was just my new thing now, so now I’m … the GET Mobile guy now, you know, not just a utility worker,” Orrego said.
Though BC previously used GET Mobile, it was limited to CoRo Café, which is student run, so dining staff had little experience with it, and none to the massive scale that it had to adapt to this year.
The old Eagle’s Nest and its lengthy lines may seem like a distant memory.
“I used to work in Eagle’s Nest working the salad line,” Palanza said. “I’d be down there banging out salads, laughing and joking with people, but you don’t really have time to do that now.”
Orrego said that he began working the GET Mobile lines because it was somewhat new for BC Dining. When GET got up and running last semester in CoRo Café, Orrego said it was frequently busy and that it was short-staffed. It then moved down to Eagle’s Nest, and Orrego organized the meals, set up tables with different pick-up times, and put the orders in alphabetical order.
“We had nothing to go off … and then it was just more like, ‘Alright, now we have to move to operate smoothly,’” he said.
Despite many missing the old atmosphere of Eagle’s Nest, Palanza said that many have recognized the convenience of ordering ahead with GET Mobile.
“It’s almost like a sign of the times,” Palanza said. “People wanna order something—Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, you pick it up—some people like that.”
Several BC Dining employees said that one of the most difficult aspects of the transition to their work during COVID-19 was the lack of interaction between coworkers and students.
“It’s very different now,” Ann Hewson, who works as a cashier for BC Dining Services at McElroy Commons, said. “We’re surrounded by Plexiglas—we can’t really chat with the students like we used to. … It’s very hard to have a conversation, so I miss that side of it. I miss, like, the connection that we used to make. Now, we always say hi, and [we] are more friendly, but to have a little chat, it’s … more difficult.”
Despite constraints on their own functions, Palanza noted that he was most proud of BC Dining’s continued commitment to serving the community. Last summer, it donated thousands of meals a week to local shelters, and began a program called Curbside for a Cause. Community members could pay $22 to receive a large amount of food that could feed over four people, which became a huge hit throughout the summer, he said.
“We were not only helping keep our employees employed, but we were also helping out charity institutions,” Palanza said.
Just as University administrators are continually monitoring and responding to new data about COVID-19, BC Dining has paid attention to what students are enjoying, Mazier said.
“It’s like with the virus … every week they come out with something different,” Mazier said. “Every week we got to adapt to something different, … like menus. We started looking like, ‘Okay, this doesn’t sell, this doesn’t sell, this … takes a long time to serve,’ so we have to come up with a different way to present the food.’”
Across departments, employees have learned to adapt to this year’s new reality. What was uncertain and daunting last March now just seems commonplace, Figueiredo said.
“The biggest transition was [from] when this first started to now,” Figueiredo said. “I mean, now it’s like, a norm, but when it first started, I mean, the scariness of it.”
Even in the difficult moments, it’s important to remember that everything will pass eventually, Una O’Hanlon, who works as a cashier in line for BC Dining Services at McElroy Commons, said, although the lessons they impart will not.
“I think it makes your character stronger to get through this,” O’Hanlon said. “I admire the freshmen … to think they came in as high schoolers and now. … then you grew up a lot in that year. And then you’ll never forget these times, but I’m happy that you will have the experience that you should have.”
Though the growing pains of transition were felt across campus by students and staff alike, custodial workers said they appreciate the gratitude they receive from students, Figueiredo said.
“I was just actually saying this to someone over at Keyes. … I said to her, ‘You have the nicest girls,’” Figueiredo said. “I mean, they’re always saying thank you … always, ‘Thanks for your hard work,’ and [we’re] always being acknowledged.”
Although Figueiredo predominantly works in academic buildings, whenever she is working in the dorms, residents frequently thank her, which feels rewarding, she said.
Trim agreed that the gratitude students express goes a long way.
“They will stop and tell you, you know, they appreciate it, ‘thank you for doing what you’re doing,’” Trim said. “[It] makes you feel really good.”
Alongside students’ recognition of custodial staff’s hard work, Anacleto mentioned how his superiors have worked to show their appreciation through things like giving out sweatshirts and hosting lunches where employees are praised, but said that he hopes for some financial compensation for their constant work. Trim echoed this desire for a monetary reward for custodians’ tireless grind.
“This is our second home here today,” Trim said. “We just would like to see the appreciation because we never stopped … we’ve been here since last March.”
Similarly, dining employees appreciate the interactions they still have with students, although they are more limited than in years past. Students don’t hesitate to express their gratitude for dining employees and have adapted graciously to the new COVID-19 protocols, Hewson said.
“Students have always been appreciative,” Hewson said. “I’ve always found them very nice, very thankful, and I think they have adapted very well because now everybody comes in, and they sanitize their hands, and they have to stand six feet apart.”
The extra efforts students undertake to show their appreciation for dining staff does not go unnoticed, Orrego said.
“I know we all do feel appreciated here because even, you know, like on the GET Mobile [app], [students will] put little instructions, and they’ll, you know, they’ll add little notes like, ‘Oh we appreciate everything that you guys do here,’ so that’s really good,” Orrego said.
Orrego said this recognition from the student body is what helps maintain BC Dining employees’ morale.
“We do our part by feeding, you know, students, and then they do what they can, what they can only do, and like just leave little notes to pick us up and like make us feel good, … which definitely keeps us going, and that’s our fuel,” he said.
Those working in COVID-19 testing also said they felt appreciated by students’ graciousness.
“One thing I really would highlight that we talk about a lot is how kind and caring the BC students are just in general and have the connection and appreciation they show that they do understand even if they may be seeing you for a quick couple minutes as part of their day,” Di Loreto said. “I just found the students to be so kind and genuine and it’s great to connect with them.”
Anacleto also emphasized the crucial role UHS played in keeping the University functioning during the pandemic.
“I believe that they don’t … [always] get enough recognition for what they do,” Anacleto said. “I see them the way they work with the kids … if there’s any fear in them, it definitely will go away because it’s so pleasant. It’s so nice. And they go the extra mile when not in professionalism and you know.”
Across BC’s campus, these faces and many more have worked to keep students not only safe, but also, to the best of their ability, happy and comfortable. Despite the strain COVID-19 places on the already demanding roles of these employees, Mazier said that he strives to fulfill his role as best he can every day.
“Everyday, I walk in here with the best attitude I have, and I think that’s the key point … with anything you do in life,” Mazier said. “If you go into something with a good attitude, get up every day and have a good attitude that everything’s gonna be okay, everything works out. You make it work.”
While the challenges presented by the pandemic have been burdensome, they have also highlighted how important each job is to keeping BC running.
“It feels good because … there’s other people on the front lines … like the health care workers, but then, we’re on the front lines of this part, so I feel like we definitely play a major impact in people’s lives and trying to get them fed and make sure everybody’s eating good, you know, because that’s the fuel to keep the body going,” Orrego said.
After over a year of continual adaptation in order to preserve a safe campus for students, Figueiredo said that her main takeaway from the pandemic has been to practice gratitude.
“I hope the lesson is that we don’t take things for granted anymore and we learn … how important it is to appreciate who’s around us and what’s around us,” Figueiredo said.
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editor
Photos by Nicole Vagra / Heights Staff and Vikrum Singh / Heights Editor