The Many Ways FM Works Toward Campus COVID-19 Safety

Published Date
April 12, 2021

Facilities Management: Behind the Scenes of UMD COVID-19 Safety

Supporting the safety of the campus community has always been an important focus of the UMD Facilities Management (FM) team, however, in this new era of COVID-19, FM staff is working harder than ever to help our fellow Terps stay safe.  

As you know, practicing good hand hygiene, maintaining social distance, wearing a face covering, and staying home when you are sick are the most protective measures you can take. What you may not realize though is that FM is working behind the scenes to bolster safety in our campus’ buildings.  From testing water and ventilation systems to ensuring that you have the information you need where you need it, many FM units have taken on additional duties since the start of the pandemic.  

 Highlighted below are the many ways Facilities Management is supporting the health and well-being of the campus community while striving to ensure UMD facilities operate as safely as possible.


1. The Air You Breathe

Photo: Testing HVAC System for COVID-19
Testing an HVAC system for COVID-19

Because COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through airborne droplets, air quality and proper ventilation is a high priority for the FM team. That’s why FM appointed a task force focused on the review and quality of ventilation and air filtration in academic and administrative buildings. This team follows guidelines established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). 

During the summer, the FM HVAC Operations team conducted a thorough assessment of the ventilation systems across campus. One consideration was to introduce higher levels of outside air to flush out airborne viruses as quickly as possible.

Filtration is the other key element and MERV is the place to start. MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, a scale for air filters that runs from one to 16. MERV-13 is a popular choice because it effectively filters viruses without taxing a system’s fan motors. Sounds like an easy remedy, right? Unfortunately, similar to toilet paper and hand sanitizer, MERV-13 filters quickly became scarce when the pandemic hit. Perseverance, however, pays off, and the FM HVAC team was eventually able to hunt down and install these filters in 272 systems, with plenty in reserve to change them regularly. “The Field Technicians are the ones who made this happen,” says Greg Stup, Assistant Director of HVAC Operations.

Even so, internal air still holds a risk of containing virus particles. That’s when a good old-fashioned physical barrier provides another level of protection.


2. Nothing Will Come Between Us … but Plexiglass

Photo: Plexiglass Surrounds Desk
Plexiglass surrounds a desk

From the checkouts at Seven-Eleven to carryout counters at restaurants everywhere, plexiglass rules the day. UMD is no different. Plexiglass became the go-to solution to prevent novel coronavirus transmission in customer service settings. As early as April 2020, the FM’s carpentry team saw the need for plexiglass installation across the campus and determined to be ready whenever it was decided that students, faculty and staff would return to campus.

It wasn’t always easy. “Plexiglass was selling like toilet paper,” notes Jason Gilman, Supervisor of Construction Renovation Services. Adding to the complexity was the fact that no two installations were the same. Gilman said that requests were often prefaced with “I don’t know how you’re going to do this, but … “ His response was, “That’s what they make screws, bolts and glue for. We’ll make it work.” And they did. From simple clear acrylic shields between customer and staff to elaborate Dutch door assemblies that extended the customer service area into hallways and limited exposure in the actual offices, the carpentry team met and exceeded expectations. With more than 150 installations behind them, the team continues to take orders and respond to requests as the campus readies for everyone to return.

This team also managed to spare some of its staff to assist in mounting some of the many of 4Maryland safety signs printed by the FM Sign shop, which leads us to our next topic.


3. Keeping You Informed

Photo: COVID-19 Signs
Two of the 120,000+ signs produced. Picture features FM staff helping to maintain on-campus COVID-19 testing site. 

A key to COVID-19 safety is communication. While UMD takes advantage of many digital options to deliver news you need to know, one tried and true communication medium that is in your face every day is still effective. We’re talking about signs. Safety reminders. Health tips. Even the floor decals that ensure safe physical spacing. 

Take a guess. How many COVID-19 signs do you think FM’s Sign Shop has produced since the beginning of the pandemic? 10,000? 30,000? More? Yes, many more. The Sign Shop has produced more than 120,000 signs related to COVID-19. Stefan Sallet has managed the sign shop for more than 30 years. He and his four-person team have been hard at work to meet the demand for new COVID-19 signage while still meeting the standard University needs. 

It has been a project that has constantly evolved as knowledge about the virus and best practices in dealing with it have evolved since early in 2020. Assistant Director of Facility Maintenance Programs Richard Nickels describes those first days as “chaotic.”  The sign shop was operating six days a week, twelve hours a day to meet the sudden demand. Even now, he says that this “is not an era conducive to long-term plans.” 

And it's not just printing the signs, It's deciding where they need to go. In advance of the Fall semester, coordination with FM's Facilities Planning Team was vital.

The FM Sign Shop, like the entire FM team, is ready to step up and produce solutions to any new challenges COVID-19 throws at it. Another example of that is the team that works to ensure water safety in campus buildings that just aren’t being used as often as is usual.



4. The Water You Drink

Photo: Testing the water supply
Testing the water supply

If drinking fountains and restroom faucets are not used regularly, water can stagnate in the pipes creating hazards for returning occupants. That’s why FM Pipes Services has stayed on the job during the pandemic lockdown period, regularly testing the water in academic and administrative buildings that are seeing dramatically reduced use.

Just what are they testing for? An adequate level of disinfectants. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) treats the water for the region with chlorine. If the levels of chlorine that reach UMD have dropped too low, it may not be strong enough to kill off bacteria in the system. If levels drop too low, the system is flushed. 

Daniel Narh, Operations Manager for Plumbing Services, says that his team tests the water in approximately 200 buildings on an ongoing basis. Before the pandemic, water quality tests were conducted quarterly because there was always a steady flow of water through the system. With virtual classes and so many UMD staffers working from home, testing is now constant. It takes about thirty days to work their way through all of the buildings that FM is responsible for, and when they are done, they start over again. “The team works very well together,” Narh says. And in addition to the COVID work, they are still responsible for the occasional plumbing emergencies that still occur, such as broken water mains.






5. Finding Viral Clues in Wastewater 

Photo: Sampling wastewater
Sampling wastewater from a UMD Residence Hall

Since the early days of the pandemic, researchers have learned much about the novel coronavirus, including how to detect its presence. One convenient way to narrow the search for cases of infection is to test wastewater. On college campuses, the optimum site to test wastewater is in the sewer mains just beyond residence halls. That is where FM’s Incident Response Unit (IRU) provided assistance to the lab teams testing for the virus. Teams from the School of Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering conducted the actual tests; IRU assisted in providing the needed samples. Accessing the sewer mains isn’t always easy, for example, sometimes the best collection points are in the middle of a road or out in the woods. 

Initially, IRU team members would simply lift the hefty one-hundred-pound manhole covers so a pole could be lowered to scoop up samples. “It was quick and easy,” said IRU Manager Brian Trest, “but it was just a snapshot.” The process evolved and hoses were later installed at the bottom of sewer pipes leading from the residence halls. These more permanent installations pull test samples on a regular basis, giving a more complete picture of what’s in the water. And a plus for the FM teams: no more lifting those heavy manhole covers all the time.


6. Making Every Inch Count

Photo: Social Distancing in Library
Students practicing social distancing in the library

Outer space may be “the final frontier,” but inner space at UMD is finite, and COVID-19 forced us to use it in a more limited way than normal. It has been the task of Kris Phillips, director of facilities planning, and his team to look at the available space in new ways, and maximize the available classrooms for an eventual return to in-person teaching. 

“When the campus closed in the spring, we began planning how to come back,” Phillips said. It was a highly analytical process. Using the best knowledge available at the time, it was determined that for optimum social distancing, which includes moving people in and out of the room, each person requires 57 square feet of space.

Facilities Planning has to consider much more than just the classrooms. How do you fill the classrooms? It was determined that the safest way for students to file in and out of classrooms was very much like accessing an airplane: fill the back of the room first, and allow the front of the room to exit first.

How about getting to the classrooms? Routes had to be set up like those in grocery stores to minimize contact. Facilities Planning worked with the Office of Strategic Communication and the FM Sign Shop to create the messaging to direct traffic inside buildings. 

Facilities Planning applied its scientific approach to determine everything from how many sanitizing stations were required and where they should be placed, to working with the Provost Office to station Academic Ambassadors at key locations and times to help direct traffic. They even printed out the plans for each classroom so housekeeping would know how to reset the room at the end of each day.

 “It is an iterative process,” Phillips said. “We needed to be flexible.” The science has changed over time, so plans had to change with it. “The cool thing about this whole experience is that we rolled up our sleeves, worked together and got it done. All the team members came to the table with a positive attitude and were able to adapt and improvise to develop solutions in a challenging and changing environment."  Of course, “done” is a relative term as the team continues to work with the Provost's office for the Fall 2021 semester and beyond.


7. Keeping Our Facilities Clean

HousekeepingWater and air are two core considerations of promoting facilities COVID-19 safety. Keeping UMD’s spaces clean and sanitized is also a key priority — however, keeping the campus spick-and-span has always been a priority for UMD’s facilities teams.  

Since the start of the pandemic, housekeeping staff has maintained a strict cleaning regime and standard cleaning frequencies in accordance with CDC guidelines, with a focus on high-touch public areas such as restrooms, entrance areas, hallways and kitchens. Building occupants maintain primary responsibility for daily cleaning of their office and office area equipment, including shared office and breakroom area equipment or personal belongings.

Additionally, Facilities Management installed and continues to service more than 2,000 hand sanitizing stations, with an additional 1,000 to be added in preparation for the Fall 2021 semester. The team also ensures that all active classrooms are stocked daily with disinfectant and alcohol wipes. 

“Cleaning for health is our focus in Housekeeping,” said Andrew Espeseth, Associate Director of Building Services. “We regularly review and adhere to Prince George and CDC guidelines. We align our cleaning processes with these guidelines and adjust as updates and changes occur.”



A Team Effort

The FM team is rightly proud of how it has contributed to campus safety during the pandemic. But it takes an even bigger team to ensure the safety of the UMD community, and that is the UMD community itself. Keep following the university’s 4 Maryland Safety Guidelines.  Remember, we’re all in this together! 

Facilities Management is responsible for UMD’s academic and administrative spaces, the infrastructure that supports campus buildings, and the landscape that surrounds them.  If you have any questions, or would like to submit a facilities work request, please contact the Customer Response Center -- (301) 405-2222 or