Q&A with a Facility Services Expert: Protocols for Reopening Colleges and Universities

As colleges and universities make plans to reopen facilities in the fall, higher ed decision makers must consider a variety of issues while COVID-19 continues to spread in communities across the country.

We spoke to Louis J. Lanzillo Jr., CEO of facility services company UG2, to find out more about the challenges higher ed institutions are facing when it comes to reopening facilities and the strategies and protocols used in their latest program to ensure a healthy environment for students, faculty and staff.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What challenges are universities facing when it comes to safely reopening facilities? 

Higher education is one of the most challenged sectors of all of the industries UG2 services. The major challenges related to safely reopening include:

Campuses are open environments and difficult to police and monitor. They are community centric by nature to foster collaboration and connection. When occupants are working, learning, and living in these spaces, cleaning and disinfection becomes fluid. You cannot impose a rigid schedule for disinfection without, to some extent, imposing restrictions on the nature, use, and access to these spaces.

Reinforcing the accountability and responsibility of each member of a college campus community to adhere to best practices in a post-pandemic world. This includes:

  • Social distancing
  • Vigilance in monitoring personal health and self-quarantining, if appropriate
  • Discipline with handwashing and sanitization  

The sheer number and diversity of facilities on a campus and the cleaning, disinfecting, and environmental challenges associated with each.

Environmental and HVAC-related challenges to fighting the indoor transmission of COVID-19, such as bearing additional cost to increase the number of filter changes, increase MERV ratings on filters, or investing in advanced technologies such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation or bipolar ionization.

The economic challenges related to bearing the increased costs of cleaning and disinfecting, and dealing with deferred maintenance issues and costs.

Logistics related to every facet of campus life and campus activity

  • Student arrivals and departures, as well as logistics and coordination
  • Social distancing
  • Classroom and auditorium scheduling, cleaning, and disinfecting
  • Residential and athletic facilities along with their nuances  
  • Managing the fear factor of accessing and disinfecting spaces with personal protective equipment (PPE) that may alarm students and parents.

Supply chain concerns for the essential items required to clean and disinfect a campus such as PPE, deep cleaning and disinfecting equipment, electrostatic sprayers, disinfecting solutions, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, etc.

What are universities' main concern when reopening facilities? 

One of the primary concerns is the ability to educate students in a safe and healthy manner while incorporating many new protocols under the new post-COVID-19 world. The inherent connectivity of campus life heightens the risk and momentum of viral outbreaks. Everyone will have anxiety over their own health and the well-being of those around them for quite some time. People will not want to occupy or visit facilities if they believe that not enough measures are being taken to ensure healthy buildings and mitigate the spread of viruses. Universities’ main concerns about reopening center around making sure building appearances are pristine, minimizing virus spread, and allaying the fears of students, parents, staff, and faculty. And this is not just for the reopening. It’s for the reoccupation that is likely to happen over the Fall, Winter, and perhaps, Spring semesters, and the ongoing occupation, at whatever level it may be.

As we look to resume activity and gradually reoccupy facilities, the reality is, we will still be living with this virus. The goal is to put strategies and protocols in place that will have enough rigor but also flexibility to navigate what lies ahead. We will focus on being proactive wherever possible to mitigate risk and highly responsive if/when faced with evidence of the virus. The last thing we want to happen is for campuses to gain momentum in terms of occupancy and activity only to be forced to shutter in response to a major outbreak. That is why we must be focused on the education, process/protocol adoption and discipline, and a commitment to communication and action. The goal is to increase occupancy and activity with a methodology rooted in prioritizing health and safety rather than racing to hit increased occupancy thresholds.

What new protocols are you implementing in your Cleaning4Health program? 

Cleaning4Health is part of UG2 ReNew, a proactive program that enables universities and colleges to provide the elevated services and sense of security that staff, students, parents, and faculty expect. Its aim is to provide exceptionally pristine and healthy environments and mitigate the risk of infection.

Cleaning4Health focuses on these four areas and includes new protocols such as:

General Housekeeping

  • Cleaning all high-frequency touch points using an EPA registered antimicrobial product that is suitable for non-enveloped viruses.
  • Pre-cleaning heavily soiled non-contact surfaces like floors and walls, followed by antiviral disinfectant.
  • Using paper towels to dry all areas and discarding the paper waste. 

Response to Isolated (Outbreak) Events

  • Using barricades/signs to isolate areas for cleaning.
  • Preparing receptacles for contaminated materials.

Disinfectant Spraying Systems

  • Using innovative spraying technology such as Electrostatic Sprayers that allow for 360-degree surface coverage and sanitize rooms 80 percent faster than conventional methods.

Personal Protective Equipment  

  • Supplying all cleaning personnel with disposable latex or nitrile gloves, providing goggles and/or face shields as required, and making disposable particulate face masks available.

Why are HVAC systems at higher ed institutions an important component in safely returning to facilities? 

HVAC is what supplies clean conditioned air to building occupants. In an educational environment where you have groups of people, the fresh air intake and exhaust exchange within your HVAC system are at much higher levels than the average commercial office environment.

ASHRAE recommends fresh air intake be set to a 30% minimum and, where the design of your air distribution can handle it, increasing your filtration MERV rating to 13 (minimum). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that facilities increase air circulation and filtration wherever possible to achieve a minimum of one fresh air exchange per hour. A disinfection and thorough cleaning of all cooling coils and drain pans will also give the extra reassurance that the airstreams are clean prior to delivery into the spaces. The HVAC systems play a critical role in preventing the spread of infectious disease. 

Here are some important components:

  • Increase Ventilations
  • Maintain Temperature & Humidity
  • Higher-MERV Filters (if possible)
  • Change Filters Before Return
  • Exercise Pumps & Motors

What are a few strategies you'll be using in your Engineering4Health program? 

Strategies that UG2 use include cleaning and disinfecting cooling/heating coils & condensation drain pans, replacing air filters and increasing MERV rating, where manufacturers’ design allows it, to help eliminate potential contaminants that travel within the airstream; using advanced technologies such as Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) light to disinfect HVAC coils or BiPolar Ionization to create positive charged ions that attach to viral particulates and destroy them; and ensuring all mechanical systems are always working well and proper air exchange levels are set.
UG2’s technical staff have also been trained to disinfect access panels, mechanical room entry and exit touchpoints, and frequently used tools that may be shared within the technical team.

Before campuses begin reopening, we also recommend that higher ed institutions consider installing touchless bathroom fixtures, including urinals, toilets, faucets, soap dispensers, automatic paper towel dispensers, doors, and automatic air sanitizers to ensure more sanitized environments within campus restrooms.

Can you explain what the four phases look like in your UG2 ReNew program? 

The phases illustrate the in-depth procedures taking place and are focused on making sure parents are comfortable sending their kids back to campus. That parents, students, staff, and faculty, believe the university/college is taking every measure to ensure that all areas/buildings are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized for their return to campus. And that the same rigor that was used to prepare for the return will be in place whenever school is open and people are on campus.

They are:

  • ReSet: preparing for Day One
  • ReTurn: when campus opens 
  • RePopulate: ongoing after campus opens  
  • ReCalibrate: ongoing after campus opens

Our focus right now is on ReSet. This is critical for ensuring all open facilities, from dorms, offices, classrooms, and libraries, to elevators, bathrooms, labs, athletics, and auditoriums, are ready for students, staff, and faculty. And that all stakeholders understand what the institution is doing to prepare.

ReSet entails rigorous preparations for Day One, when campus opens and people return. It includes three intensive steps:

  • Deep Cleaning and Sanitizing. This includes increasing cleaning for high-frequency touch points, steaming, deep cleaning and disinfecting restrooms, and more.
  • Proactive Touchless Disinfecting: Using the electrostatic sprayers mentioned above.
  • Communication Approach: This includes sharing program updates and changes to students, parents, faculty and staff, tenants, and occupants, as well as the university providing signage and reminders about what they should be doing to adhere to new policies and procedures, and the consequences of not adhering.

ReTurn is when campuses open. RePopulate and ReCalibrate are focused on making sure that the cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and communications programs and procedures that are in place are still effective. And that we quickly adjust to accommodate any changes that may occur related to occupancy, isolated outbreaks, or university plans/policies.

Do you anticipate protocols and strategies used in your program will evolve over time? 

We created the strategies and protocols in UG2 ReNew by applying decades of facilities services experience to what we know, and anticipate, about COVID-19 and how it spreads. We envision them being largely in place for the next six months or so. However, as new information about COVID-19 comes to light, and vaccines hopefully become available, we will adjust as needed.

Evolution is built into the UG2 ReNew Program and, quite frankly, the success of this program is rooted in its ability to be prescriptive and flexible. A key part of the program is recalibrating what must happen and what additional innovation/technology must be introduced in order to help higher ed institutions be best positioned to combat the risk of COVID-19.

Our goal is to provide the strategy, resources, and workforce to put colleges and universities on the offense rather than the defense when it comes to overcoming challenges posed by this virus and any other contagious diseases that may pose a threat in the future.