Students pick up sack lunches at Cleveland Commons

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In her early 20s, Shannon Perkins taught herself to sew. She did it for fun, making her own work clothes as a hobby. When she had children, she didn’t have time to sew anymore, and her machine has been sitting idle.

Until April.

Perkins works part-time in the Whitman College Physical Plant, working in the lock shop and front office. And this spring, she’s taken on another role: seamstress. Perkins made more than 70 fabric masks for workers in the Physical Plant — essential employees who are still reporting to work in person.

The masks will help protect the maintenance, custodial and grounds crews who keep Whitman College operating even though the campus is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each member of the Physical Plant crew will have at least three masks, said Facilities Director Tony Ichsan, so they can be washed between uses. In addition to those Perkins is making, additional masks were donated by the Walla Walla Presbyterian Church and Walla Walla Sew, Vac and Spas. The donations were coordinated by Project Engineer John Hopkins.

While campus is closed to the public, the Physical Plant team is taking the opportunity to deep-clean buildings and conduct needed maintenance. They also continue to care for the college’s landscape.

“There’s a lot of areas we’re able to access now and not be disruptive,” Ichsan said, such as the Penrose Library, which is used by students almost around the clock. “We’re trying to tackle some of the items that would have been disruptive or noisy, since we don’t have occupants in the buildings.”

Staying On the Job

Physical Plant isn’t the only department at Whitman that remains on campus during COVID-19. Other teams are also working diligently to make sure that students are cared for, including Printing and Mailing Services, Campus Security, Bon Appetit and the staff of Residence Life.

The Campus Security staff has six officers providing 24-hour coverage, said Director Marvin Viney. In addition to normal patrolling, they security team is also tasked with enforcing and educating individuals on campus about physical distancing guidelines. Like the Physical Plant crew, the security team is also wearing masks, as well as gloves, during patrols, and frequently sanitizing their spaces when working in the office.

During a normal spring, Whitman typically has between 700-800 students living in on-campus housing. About 140 remained in the residence halls after the college moved to online learning in March.

Nourishing Daily and Planning Ahead

In Cleveland Commons, the Bon Appetit staff is working to make sure those students stay fed. Cleveland is the only dining facility open on campus right now, and it offers breakfast, dinner and lunch in to-go containers, as well as retail options for students who want to buy food to keep in their rooms.

The staff works to keep social distancing protocols in place, and students aren’t allowed to eat in Cleveland, said General Manager Roger Edens. While Cleveland is known for its many food stations, including a salad bar, sushi, pizza, grilled items and a rotating menu of global cuisine, right now the meals are limited to a vegan entrée and a non-vegan entrée. But they still try to give students variety, and each day’s boxes are different, with the menu published on the Bon Appetit website.

The staff is keeping some of the traditional end-of-the-year celebrations. For Cinco de Mayo, they packaged up nachos to go, said Assistant General Manager Josh Hulett. They are planning a special dessert for what would have been Finals Fest.

They’re also looking ahead to fall semester, and planning processes for reopening the dining hall with more physical distance between tables, sanitizing in between diners, staggered meal times and reduced menu options to prevent long ordering times.

Mostly, they’re looking forward to welcoming students back to campus.

“Our employees are fairly outgoing, and they get to know the students,” Edens said. “Every single one of us here would much prefer 500 people being in here at the same time for lunch.” 

Engaging at Home and Away

In Residence Life and Housing, staff members are not only continuing to serve the students who remain at Whitman, but also working to keep community alive for those who have left campus. 

Just over two dozen students remain in Stanton Hall, where each has a single room and has been assigned to their own bathroom area to avoid cross-contamination. Resident Director Adam Dawson '16 and three resident assistants (RAs) oversee the hall.

“It’s hard to figure out the balance of what do residents want and need, and what can we provide that’s appropriate,” Dawson said. Stanton Hall is also uniquely set up to accommodate physical distancing, with study areas and large common rooms that allow students to get out of their rooms while maintaining adequate distance. Dawson’s team has set up study hall times to keep students on track academically.

“When you have all day to do your work, it’s almost harder to motivate yourself,” he said. “We found if we had some time that’s framed as ‘study time’ in a visible community space, students are more inclined to focus and do their work.”

For those students who have left campus, RAs are hosting virtual events, like Zoom tea times, study breaks and section meetings. Residence Life wants to provide opportunity for students to stay connected and prevent feelings of isolation.

“We are trying to think very intentionally about programming in small groups of students,” said Andrew Johnson ’09, associate director of Residence Life and Housing.  “That’s so foundational to what we do.” 

Residence Life is also working with students who left belongings behind to ship essential items they need to complete the semester. The college is also creating a plan to allow students to return to campus to pack their rooms once restrictions are eased.

Like all departments, the Residence Life staff is creating plans for welcoming students back to campus in August while continuing to protect student health.

“Our focus is on building a strong sense of community for our students. What we hear every year is that students form friendships during their time on campus that last for decades,” Johnson said. “We think that’s a result of the strong campus and community formed in residence life. No matter what happens, our focus is to continue building those strong connections.”