June 27, 2022
light rain Rain 67 °F

First of its kind Move-in Week ’unbelievably smooth’

Incoming student Gabriel Wong proudly displays his Binghamton University ID card before picking up his room key at the West Gym during Move-in Week. Incoming student Gabriel Wong proudly displays his Binghamton University ID card before picking up his room key at the West Gym during Move-in Week.
Incoming student Gabriel Wong proudly displays his Binghamton University ID card before picking up his room key at the West Gym during Move-in Week. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

High up in the Events Center, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger had a panoramic view of the action from the small room where he set up a mini-office during Move-in Week. His view from above was of the massive initiative to test all incoming residential students for COVID-19.

Between Aug. 19 and Aug. 25, Stenger saw more than 6,200 students move through the testing process, which took months to pull together.

“There was uncertainty when we started planning this about if it would work as well as we had planned,” Stenger said. “And it did! Even with a few blips here and there, we quickly debugged them and had everything running like clockwork. It was unbelievably smooth and I think we have a great start to a big semester.

“We just accomplished what people thought was impossible,” Stenger added. “We’re the only SUNY campus and one of the few nationwide to test all of our students before moving in.”

Of the more than 6,200 students tested, only 28 showed positive for COVID-19. Of those, the majority have returned home to isolate, with four isolating on campus in a dedicated area and one isolating off campus.

David Hubeny, executive director of the University’s Office of Emergency Management, oversaw the testing operation from start to finish, and credits his team and collaborations across the campus for its success.

“Although nothing about a testing process as complex as this was easy, it was the volunteers and staff that made everything as easy as it possibly could have been,” Hubeny said. “They worked tirelessly to provide the highest level of professionalism and customer service that they possibly could. The volunteers and staff required very little oversight from managers because they were self-motivated and highly focused throughout each of the seven testing days.”

And seven days is a long time.

The most challenging aspect of the entire testing process was the fatigue factor, Hubeny said: “The same staff members who spent long days over many weeks to plan this event were also the individuals who worked incredibly long hours on site while testing was underway, but they took pride in what they were accomplishing and did whatever was necessary to ensure all of our resident students were safely and efficiently tested for COVID-19.”

Any glitches that occurred during the week were addressed quickly, Hubeny added.

“Over the course of the seven testing days there were very few problems,” he said. “Most commonly, some of our students experienced delays receiving their testing results and the staff worked as quickly as possible to solve the issue. In nearly every case we were able to provide electronic or hard-copy printed results in a matter of minutes.”

The most serious problem, Hubeny said, actually became one of the team’s biggest successes. “On our last day of testing before the site was opened, we experienced a serious IT networking challenge that prevented any testing from occurring until the problem could be resolved. A team from our Information Technology Services Department did some troubleshooting and wrote a customized software solution to the problem in less than 45 minutes. This amazing team of IT professionals was able to fix this incredibly challenging problem that allowed the site to open only eight minutes late.”

Overall, the goal was to be able test up to 150 people per hour. By the middle of the first day of testing, about 120 people per hour were being tested, but after staff and volunteers were experienced with their tasks, a systems science engineering team estimated the testing capacity could exceed 200 people per hour.

“The ability of the system to exceed our expectations was a direct result of the dedicated volunteers who remained focused and professional throughout the entire seven-day testing period,” Hubeny said. “Overall, our team of people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets worked together to provide a safe and efficient process that allowed our students to return to campus. The long hours invested in the planning process proved invaluable as very few problems arose during the testing period.

“The team’s hard work to identify potential problems and solutions prior to the start of testing meant that challenges were resolved on site before they became serious problems on the days the students were being tested,” he said.

Residential Life

Binghamton University moved more than 5,900 students into on-campus housing during the past week, following an altered process from previous years. Signage was clear, there were plenty of laundry carts for students to use and Residential Life staff were on hand to answer questions and offer assistance if needed. The difference from prior years? The process took place over seven days, so it was a less hectic process. What was the same as in prior years? The sense of excitement from students back on campus.

“We spread the move-in process over an entire week to keep densities at move-in locations much lower and to ensure we could keep up at the testing center without creating long waits,” Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose said. ”We’re very pleased at how well it worked and grateful to the many staff and student volunteers who helped all week long.

“Students and families were very cooperative with arriving as scheduled and following our guidelines. We know families, particularly of new students, would have wanted to spend more time on campus helping their students settle in and saying goodbye. We know returning students would have wanted more control over when they arrived,” Rose added. “We’re appreciative of the understanding they all demonstrated in cooperating with our procedures and are thrilled to have so many of our students back on campus. We all missed the energy they bring to campus.”

Even a brief door-access snag and some rain didn’t keep students from moving in.

“The door-access outage lasted a little over an hour and staff was available to help students access front doors,” said Paola Mignone, director of Residential Life. “We also had thunderstorms on two of the move-in days but we quickly adjusted to move some our staff indoors so the move-in process wasn’t delayed.”

Other than those minor technology and weather issues that are common to most any move-in, the only challenges were related to managing student excitement to meet each other (new students) and see each other again after many months (returners), Rose said. “We are working hard to maintain a safe campus environment and Residential Life staff spent time and effort upholding standards for face coverings, social distancing and gatherings in the face of the understandable student excitement to meet and see one another.”

Due to the pandemic, the move-in coincided with the arrival of resident assistants (RAs) this year, Mignone said, making for long days for staff who were managing the move-in process, helping at the tables, participating in training and serving on duty. “The staff worked long hours to do all of this while also welcoming their students,” she said.

Khaleel James, the president and CEO of the Student Association, is a senior majoring in human development and economics. He’s also a resident assistant in Mountainview College, and joined with administrators and staff in months of meetings leading up to move-in activities, playing a vital role in planning for the restarting of Binghamton University.

James, who said he personally reacted “pretty well” to the COVID-19 testing (you could swab your nose yourself or someone could do it for you), is excited to be back with friends and in a safe environment and to have had the smoothest move in he’s ever seen. “Nobody was hogging the carts!” he said.

The hardest part of move-in for James was controlling his excitement, he said. “We spent the whole summer planning and I was excited to see my new residents,” he said. “I put my trust in these students and am proud of the first-year students in particular for accepting the challenge of not having a typical experience and charging head-on into the darkness.”

“As an RA, it’s different for sure,” he said. “Instead of having hall meetings, we’re having Zoom meetings, but we’re also giving students time to be with their roommates, who will hopefully be their best friends.

“For the students who are following the guidelines, wearing masks and social distancing, keep doing it!” James added. “Tell your friends, play it safe. We’re all in this together.”

Mignone commended the Residential Life staff for working so hard during the check-in process and creating a welcoming environment for the students, but she’s also proud of the thousands of students and parents who did their best to wear masks, socially distance and abide by the guidelines.

“You could sense that students were excited to be back and that parents were grateful that their student was going to have the college experience. Everyone is trying to work together to make this happen,” she said.

And even though parents were not allowed into the residence halls, they found their own ways to make the occasion feel special. “We saw students and parents doing their best to create special moments outdoors by taking pictures, and heard parents giving students instructions on room setup,” Mignone said. “The parents patiently waited for their students outdoors as the students unloaded their carts in their rooms.”

This was no easy feat, involving many moving parts and requiring offices across campus to break silos and work in different ways, Mignone added. “I’m grateful for the trust that our campus leaders placed in us and for the support they provided to ensure we had the tools and guidance we needed. I’m also grateful for the hundreds of volunteers and the colleagues who worked so hard to make this possible and to all the students who are being responsible by wearing their masks, socially distancing and following guidelines regarding gatherings.”

Binghamton University Dining Services

Over the past four months Binghamton University Dining Services (BUDS), managed by Sodexo, has developed plans to provide more than 3,000 nutritious meals an hour under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve made many changes in our initial provision of services that feel as unnatural to us as to our students,” General Manager James Ruoff said, “but these changes are necessary for us to be able to maintain social distancing and comply with University and community safety standards.”

The changes include limited seating, serving all meals in carryout containers, prepackaging meals to speed delivery and minimize wait times in lines, adding touchless payment processes and increasing sanitation in all facilities.

“These changes are both new and necessary,” Ruoff said. “But what has not changed is the quality of our food or the ingredients we use to make the comfort foods our students expect. We continue to serve fresh salmon, carved white turkey meat and carved flank steak in all our facilities. All our deli meat is sourced directly from Boar’s Head; the sandwiches are made fresh daily on campus. Our bakery is up and running and supporting ‘Cupcake Wednesday,’ one of many culinary traditions at Binghamton University.”

Less than a week into these new operational standards, BUDS has already made some adjustments based on student feedback, including adding more vegan options to the menu and some daily sides in the grills, Ruoff added. “We’re also strengthening our menu cycle moving forward to ensure that we have more cost-effective options, and we’re adjusting portion sizes to meet the needs of all students.”

The top concerns in the residential dining halls that arose during the first week were ways to better accommodate students with special dietary needs, and the challenge of social-distancing compliance, said John Enright, general manager of resident dining. And though nothing has been easy with the transitions caused by COVID-19, “the willingness and understanding of our team about what had to happen and getting it done made for a relatively smooth move-in week.”

“Returning students are surprised by the changes, but all have been understanding as to the reasons why,” Enright added. “They naturally want what they had last semester — as do we.”

On the retail side, “parents who have been on campus this week have been appreciative of the safety efforts we’ve put forth,” said Tom LaSarso, general manager of retail dining. ”Operationally, we’ve had to develop new routines for staff, and in some cases, added position.”

Having a week-long move-in period eased the opening for LaSarso. “The spreading out of students moving in has allows us to monitor our opening plans and make adjustments. Collaboration from Physical Facilities to assist with our reopening needs has been great and teamwork from all involved to get the campus and dining services reopened has been key,” he said.

In addition, BUDS plays a critical role in caring for any students who are quarantined or isolated on campus. “Our team has done a phenomenal job setting up and executing the entire process,” Enright said.

Now, BUDS will continue to watch for changes in customer patterns caused by the mix of online and in-person classes, looking for additional ways to serve customers.

“Overall, our promise is this,” Ruoff said. “We will continue to make changes that ensure a more enjoyable experience for our community. Be assured that no one would like to get back to ‘normal operations’ more than Binghamton University Dining Services. We will do so the moment we can ensure safety of our students.”

B Welcome Week

In the midst of a pandemic where so many activities have been curtailed, planning ways to engage students from the moment they arrive on campus until after the first day of classes is no easy task. B Welcome was developed to provide that engagement and has included both in-person and virtual events, ranging from bike rides and fun runs to games in the Union Undergrounds to outdoor recreational activities and movies to advising hours and department open houses.

“I would say that B Welcome went well,” Dean of Students Randall Edouard said. “We’ve had a good blend of in-person and virtual programs and events. Most of them required a registration beforehand to help keep density measures low, but attendance has been good.”

Putting the plan together required true coordination, Edouard noted. “In fact, I would say the easiest part of all of this was working with our Binghamton University staff to help coordinate all of these activities, programs and events. Everyone had a positive attitude in developing events, communicating and following social-distance guidelines as needed.”

Edouard said that changing guidelines, such as knowing when gyms or indoor spaces for recreational activities could open, was made planning somewhat difficult because of having to wait until the last week before move In to get more events marketed, but we’ve been able to work through that.”

He’s proud of students, faculty and staff for working together to provide such a variety of engagement opportunities of all kinds — and the most pleasant surprise “was how compliant the majority of students have been on campus. It has been great seeing masks on students as they participate in these events.”