Your Campus Re-open: A Q&A with Purdue University

Across the country, colleges and universities are considering how to re-open their campuses while ensuring the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, staff and visitors.

From social distancing and cleaning protocols to reconfigured classrooms and public spaces, the ideal approach is holistic. Data—about room capacities, configurations and furnishings—is critical to ensure health and wellness; building operations that support wellbeing; and space utilization standards based on social distancing.

With X square feet of facilities across its X-acre main campus, Purdue University is implementing an integrated “Protect Purdue” re-opening plan. In the following discussion, Purdue University leaders and JLL experts discuss the critical role of data and occupancy planning in Purdue’s campus re-open. The participants include:

  • Lindsay Stowell, EVP, Higher Education, JLL, Moderator
  • Jay Wasson, Associate Vice President, Physical Facilities, Purdue University
  • Michael Gulich, Director of Campus Planning & Sustainability and University Architect, Purdue University
  • Regina Wollin, Manager, Occupancy, JLL

JLL: How did you begin the process of implementing social distancing into the campus? What are some of the first steps you took at Purdue?

Wasson: We started monitoring the pandemic in late January and February. At the end of March, President Mitchell E. Daniels convened a Safe Campus Task Force, with work groups for academics, student life, health and safety, campus visitors and workforce safety. The task force was headed by the dean of the business school and the dean of the veterinary college, and 12 of us from different functional areas.

In March and April, the task force interviewed campus and community stakeholders, ensuring that we received input from everyone across the Purdue community. Ultimately, we developed more than 150 recommendations. Then we created an Implementation Task Force that meets each week with President Daniels and his cabinet.

JLL: What are key elements of the Protect Purdue plan that the board of trustees approved?

Wasson: As an engineer, I like to think that we can solve a lot of the world’s challenges through physical infrastructure. However, we recognize that changing hearts and minds is key to behavioral change. Everything in our plan is built off of that.

That’s why we came up with the Purdue Pledge: to educate our community members on actions they can take to protect themselves, protect others and protect the community at large. It sends the message that to have an on-campus experience in the fall, these are the things we collectively need to do.

We’re also equipping members of our community with the tools they need to stay safe. For example, faculty, staff and students will receive a wellness kit with face coverings, hand sanitizer, thermometers and that sort of thing.

Most important, this is an adaptable, living plan designed to react to changing conditions on the ground. We are trying to be both proactive and agile.

As students come to campus, we will provide mandatory training for students and employees to teach understanding of the Purdue Pledge.

Jay Wasson

Q: How will you enforce the Purdue Pledge? Is it a one-time pledge or daily affirmation?

Wasson: We are seeking voluntary compliance from those that come to our campus, so it really starts with education. Our marketing and media department has been key in helping to set this up. For example, we‘re creating videos with the student body president and certain high-profile athletes, and rolling out an education piece about things we all need to do to preserve the campus experience.

As students and employees come to campus, we will provide mandatory training to teach understanding of the Purdue Pledge. And, we will have a host of reminders day after day—signs, literature and more—reminding people of the Pledge and safe behaviors. [OM1]

Q: What are you doing to identify vulnerable populations in your community?

Wasson: Through our HR department, we have a process in which people can self-identify themselves with a simple online form that the HR team reviews. We created a health center with case workers who can contact those folks to learn about their particular situations and determine how to make accommodations, such as working remotely.

Knowing how many instructional spaces we have on campus seems like a straightforward, easy question—but it turned out not to be so straightforward. The numbers continue to evolve.

Michael Gulich

Q: In retrospect, is there any data that you didn’t have to begin with that you wish you had?

Gulich: Room capacities. We’re creating a master list of instructional spaces, furniture plans, capacity for the spaces, square footage and, of course, photographs. Knowing how many instructional spaces we have on campus seems like a straightforward, easy question—but it turned out not to be so straightforward. The numbers continue to evolve as we pull more rooms that aren’t primarily used for instruction into service because of reduced seating capacity.

We’ve captured classrooms pretty accurately, but capacity data is challenging, particularly for spaces that are departmentally scheduled with capacities set by the departments and colleges. We’re applying a percentage to build social distancing into the original capacities, so having a single source of truth or having the data in one place would have been really helpful for us.

Wollin: Not having a final answer on capacity has required additional coordination—while we’re in crisis mode. We’ve had a team actually go out and field-verify all of it. Simply taking a deep dive into our classroom space has been a very time-consuming effort. We wanted to make sure that we understood the layouts correctly, taking the knowledge from field verification to create furniture drawings that, unfortunately, we did not have except for a very small percentage. That was a very significant effort and we continue to rely upon department coordination because of the significant number of departmentally-controlled spaces added to our overall instructional space list.

Simply taking a deep dive into our classroom space has been a very time-consuming effort—while we’re in crisis mode.

Regina Wollin

We pulled data from our space management system, starting with instructional space, to gain an understanding of our general academic classrooms, as well as the classrooms and class laboratories that are department-specific or departmentally-assigned spaces. And, we’ve pulled in non-traditional classrooms that are hybrid or multi-purpose spaces that might also serve another need, such as research. Also, we needed to pull in additional atypical classrooms to add social distancing capacity.

We also looked at the types of furniture used in our classrooms. We had some of that data, but it wasn’t necessarily captured in the space management system. So, we had to pull that from other sources, coordinating with other departments and identifying whether furniture is fixed seating or movable seating—all those things had an impact on our social distancing plans. We started out with sampling some of the larger classrooms, which often have fixed seating, and also some of the smaller rooms to figure out what social distancing standards we would applying to these rooms.

The key is to provide branded signage and consistent visual cues on the floors and at eye level to remind students, faculty and staff to be mindful of social distancing while circulating.

Regina Wollin

Q: What are you planning to implement to help with social distancing in building operations?

Gulich: We are doing building walkthroughs to ensure that we are set up appropriately. We’ve developed a branded signage package of reminders about social distancing, circulation, handwashing, entering and exiting classrooms, and more. We’ve also removed common area furniture in some cases and/or changed how it is spaced.

Wollin: The key is to provide branded signage and consistent visual cues on the floors and at eye level to remind students, faculty and staff to be mindful of social distancing while circulating through campus spaces, including stairwells and hallways. For instance, arrows indicate that you should stay to the right. Only one or two people should occupy the elevator at a time. In taller buildings, organizations are asking people to reserve elevator use for visits to upper floors only. We’re also implementing one-way exits and entrances, in coordination with fire safety officials. That is going to vary by department.

Q: How did you determine the optimal number of students per learning space to maintain social distancing?

Gulich: We needed to provide our provost with capacities for all 850 or so learning spaces. We’re taking a layered approach. Masks will be mandatory inside all buildings, so social distancing is based on that requirement and other mitigation strategies. In classrooms, we’ve targeted 50% capacity with the maximum capped at 150 students in our largest classrooms, and we’re also bringing a couple of theater-type spaces into service. We’re targeting a minimum of 10 feet from an instructor to the nearest student in classroom and providing a mobile, see-through Plexiglas barrier at the instructor station in all these spaces. We bought 3,000 sheets of Plexiglass and are manufacturing barriers in-house.

In instructional labs, we initially had different occupancy criteria based on spacing, but returned to the 50% target. The criteria were complicated and, frankly, we were often getting back to roughly 50% capacity, anyway. Having said that, we have more than 400 instructional labs and they are all very different. We’ve had many conversations with our colleagues about activities in these spaces and creating a safe environment. We’re trying to maximize the space across the board, so spacing is often under six feet—but that’s based on students facing in one direction.

Q: Do you have plans for social distancing for folks who have different vision or hearing capabilities?

Gulich: We’ve had many conversations about the implications of some of our strategies. For instance, the Plexiglas barrier could potentially create a reflection that interferes with learning. If a faculty member is wearing a mask and speaking from behind a Plexiglas barrier, what does that mean for acoustics? We’ve had a parallel conversation around amplification. Many of our larger rooms have technology for that, but the smaller ones did not. We’ve been fitting out the smaller rooms with amplification and addressing the issue of personal microphones for the faculty.

Q: Do you have enough capacity in general for all the changes you are implementing? Are you leveraging e-learning?

Gulich: We are trying to leverage large conference rooms and other types of spaces. We have a team looking at tents and other ways to de-densify space. Concurrently, we will have operational changes, such as extending the academic day beyond 5:30 pm or adding Saturday classes. The planning team has started with the large sections in large classrooms and is working their way down. We’ll see a hybrid of online and in-person classes.

For example, you may have a course that meets twice a week, in which half the class meets one day and the other half meets another day. Some faculty have longer lab sections that they’re cutting in half. They’re teaching the first group and then taking time to sanitize and turn the space over. We are attempting to run synchronously all classes online. As I said, we’re continuing in real time to get this figured out.

From social distancing and cleaning protocols to reconfigured classrooms and public spaces, the ideal approach is holistic.

Lindsay Stowell

Q: What are some of your protocols for personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning? Have you had supply chain challenges?

Wasson: Face coverings are mandatory for anyone coming on the campus, including third-party service providers. The board of trustees ratified that policy, so it is part of campus regulations.

Through our procurement services division, we stood up a 90-days inventory supply group, and we have built key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics around what’s been ordered, received and distributed. This group manages things like face masks, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and even flu vaccine on our critical supplies list. And we’re having a conversation about face shields as an additional layer of protection.

To reemphasize what Michael said earlier, we are taking a multi-layered systems approach. Social distancing is one layer of mitigation, as is de-densification, face masks and Plexiglass barriers. No one layer is going to be perfect, but, as we apply multiple layers, we can achieve a high degree of effectiveness.

We are taking a multi-layered systems approach. Social distancing is one layer of mitigation, as is de-densification, face masks and Plexiglass barriers.

Jay Wasson

Q: Are you planning to increase the number of cleaning staff? How are you handling cleaning between classes?

Wasson: We have a hiring freeze effect on campus, but we have board authorization to fill vacant custodial positions and hire additional temporary workers. We’ve been talking about things that we can do from an enterprise perspective.

As an example, we can clean a classroom once a day with a very rigorous top to bottom disinfecting operation with commercially available technologies. That doesn’t scale well for a 10-minute class change. The expectation is that students and instructors will be able to use sanitizing wipes and wipe down their particular work areas before the instructional period begins.

Tracking down disinfecting wipes continues to be a challenge. We’ve just seen them in our local retailer in the last week in my community. One work-around is to keep dry wipes next to a liquid disinfectant dispenser. It just takes a little more work on our part to merge two incoming supplies.

Q: Could you provide some high-level thoughts about managing dining and food service?

Wasson: Like many universities, we operate predominantly on a dining court model. We decided to start fall semester with take-out only. We have 20-plus serving locations that we’re boiling down to four or five. Folks will come in and make their selections, and the food will be packaged so the person can eat elsewhere.

Q: How are you preparing to restart research laboratories?

Wasson: We have staff doing walk-throughs in the research building, making sure that we have appropriate signage and furniture de-densification for lobby areas. The researchers themselves and our EVP of Research are developing lab-specific standard operating procedures (SOPs), with a small army of people reviewing and approving the SOPs.

Q: What are your biggest take-aways from this experience?

Wasson: This experience has re-affirmed that, at least for a place like Purdue, a great value is placed on that residential experience. That has been very validating for us not just now, but looking ahead.

The integration between workstreams and different groups has been really important. At times, universities operate like a federation of groups. That model does not work well when you are trying to make these kinds of changes. You really need to get the right people in the room and have an integrated conversation, soliciting information and feedback toward making decisions.

Lastly, the communications piece is critically important. We had to recognize the different stakeholder groups that we need to communicate with and align messaging around the perspective of students, prospective students, faculty and staff and the community at large. And being a state institution, even the state regulators, legislature and Governor’s office are stakeholders for Purdue.

What will your campus re-open look like?

For every college or university, the path toward a safe and effective campus re-opening will be unique, encompassing nearly every aspect of campus operations. To keep the journey from becoming overwhelming, it’s important to follow Michael Gulich’s advice—break the goals into “bite-sized pieces” to tackle the challenge systematically. And, as the Purdue team learned, the more high-quality data you have on hand, the better equipped you’ll be for occupancy planning and campus facilities operations in the era of social distancing and other pandemic-related precautions.

Want more? Talk to the team