Inside Northeastern’s plans to support a safe and healthy campus when students and faculty return this fall

A member of the Northeastern facilities team sanitizes and cleans Snell Library. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Air circulation and ventilation in classrooms, labs, and residence halls are being upgraded to meet or exceed public health guidelines. Thousands of touchless hand sanitizers and towel dispensers are being installed, with more on the way. An around-the-clock team of hundreds of cleaners will be spraying and scrubbing public spaces as often as three times a day—and overnight, every night, much of Northeastern will undergo a hygienic makeover.

With as many as 10,000 beds prepared for students who will be living in campus housing in the fall, and a comprehensive testing program in place to verify their health, Northeastern’s long-building plan to reopen is now zeroing in on the final phase. A long list of measures—some cutting-edge new, others based in traditional common sense—is being applied to support a safe environment throughout its campus in Boston as well as its neighboring locations in Burlington, Nahant, and Dedham, Massachusetts, according to the university officials who are leading the efforts.

Similar efforts to promote safety are being applied across Northeastern’s global system of campuses, in accordance with local laws and public health guidelines. Northeastern has campuses in London, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, the Bay Area, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Portland, Maine.

Preparations for the reopening of Northeastern have been under development since the spring, after the university, in accordance with public health guidelines, moved classroom instruction online and required students to leave campus in an important effort to protect safety and wellness. Along the way, Northeastern has maintained 28 research-active buildings, which has enabled vital research to continue on campus. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have been receiving regular maintenance, including filter changes and, where possible, have been refitted for increased use of outside air. 

Cleaning crews sanitize and clean Marino Recreation Center. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Additionally, spaces have been reconfigured and fitted with signage to support proper healthy distancing, management of the number of people in interior spaces, and the movement of people within buildings. Elevator occupancy is being limited to two to four people, based on guidelines of the National Elevator Institute Inc., a national trade association for the elevator and escalator industry.

University workers have been systematically disinfecting the residence halls that have been housing approximately 200 students who have been participating in co-op this summer.

Three hundred touchless soap dispensers and 700 touchless paper towel dispensers will be installed by mid-August, with another 1,000 of each to arrive on campus by mid-November. 

Healthy classrooms

A focus for the fall reopening has been maintaining air quality in classrooms. Northeastern’s 43 academic buildings are fully or partially outfitted with HVAC, which delivers ventilation to a majority of the 462 classrooms on the Boston campus. In the fall, HVAC will be kept running in classrooms two hours before and after occupancy, in order to fully flush the air in the spaces. 

The air supply of buildings with HVAC systems—whether 100 percent fresh air, or fresh air mixed with return air from the building—passes through a filtration system with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 12. The filters have an 80 percent to 90 percent particle size efficiency in capturing particles between 1.0 and 3.0 microns, and a 90 percent or greater efficiency in capturing particles that are between 3.0 and 10.0 microns in size. 

For classrooms that are not served by a building HVAC system, Northeastern is purchasing ultraviolet germicidal irradiation lighting (UVGI) with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems. These units, which resemble portable dehumidifiers, have been shown to reduce particulate count, including those potentially containing viruses. 

The University will also install units in the two areas on campus where COVID-19 testing will take place and in residence halls with communal bathrooms and showers.

Northeastern’s practices on ventilation are following recommendations and best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in addition to professional and trade organizations, including the National Air Filtration Association, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and Leadership in Education Facilities.

These cutting-edge measures are meant to enhance—but not replace—the already-established methods to combat the virus, says Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs at Northeastern.

“You still have to practice all of the other methods we’ve learned during the pandemic,” Estabrook says. “Wearing a face mask indoors and outdoors, maintaining a healthy distance from others, washing your hands, cleaning countertops and other high-touch surfaces, watching for signs of your health every day—all of that is required, because there isn’t just one thing that will keep you safe.”

Northeastern cleaning crews will disinfect “high-touch” points in common areas—including door handles, counter tops, and elevator buttons—three times per day, with thorough cleanings done overnight. Their work will include restrooms, elevators, entrance door hardware, counters, and handrails, in accordance with the guidelines of the CDC.

The steady use of classroom spaces prevents crews from cleaning the rooms in between classes. Instead, occupants will be expected to take responsibility for their own space. Students and faculty will be asked to utilize a sanitizing-wipes station (which will be available in all classrooms) to wipe down their desk, chair, and other areas upon arrival, and again on their way out. 

All classrooms will be cleaned by Northeastern crews on a nightly basis. 

In the interest of reducing classroom density and helping to keep students and faculty safe, Northeastern is implementing a new model called Hybrid NUFlex, in which some students will be attending courses in person while other classmates participate online.

Classrooms that have been occupied by an individual who has tested positive for the coronavirus will be closed for 24 hours. After the waiting period, Northeastern cleaners will deploy one or more of their available 25 electrostatic sprayers, which offer 360 degrees of coverage as the cleaners make their way through, thus enabling the classrooms to be reopened as quickly as possible.

The water systems in all buildings are flushed in order to eliminate and prevent any contamination by legionella and other water-related toxins such as traces of lead as part of getting the building ready for re-occupancy. Additionally, Northeastern is inspecting the toilet bowl flush mechanisms on campus to ensure proper operation.

Clean residence halls

Northeastern crews will clean the common areas of residence halls every day; additionally, the “high-touch” surfaces will be cleaned three times per day.

In all buildings throughout campus, hand sanitizer dispensers will be available at main entrances, on each floor, and in high-traffic areas and bathrooms. In the residence halls, sanitizing stations will be installed at each proctor station, in some bathrooms, and in each waste/recycling room and laundry room. Disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be used and maintained on all campuses, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

In residence halls for freshmen, which do not feature kitchens or private bathrooms, a special regimen will be implemented. There are close to 200 community bathrooms in these residence halls, and each will be cleaned three times per day.

Trash and recycling removal in residence halls will be increased in anticipation that people will be eating more often in their rooms.

Northeastern is assembling welcome kits for freshmen upon their arrival at residence halls. The kits include sponges, cleaning spray, microfiber cloths, hand sanitizer, and wipes to give them a head-start on cleaning their residences. It will be the responsibility of students to replenish those supplies, which can be ordered online or at a number of convenience and grocery stores serving the Northeastern campus. 

For leased properties, including the Boston-area hotels that will house students, Northeastern will verify that the property manager has prepared the buildings’ common spaces in  accordance with state guidelines and university standards. 

“Having the students on campus will be great for my team,” says Jack Malone, associate vice president of facilities at Northeastern. “My people are ready for the task. They’ve always known they were an integral part of the university, but now everyone understands the important role they’re going to be playing in the health and safety of Northeastern, and they’re excited to do their jobs. They are ready to go.” 

If students test positive for COVID-19, they will be moved into wellness rooms with capacity of more than 500 beds that have been created in three areas at Northeastern.

Healthy dining

Northeastern’s 30 dining facilities on the Boston campus, which served 20,000 meals daily before the pandemic, are being adapted to meet public health guidelines. At least every 30 minutes, a crew of “cleaning concierges” will be using sanitation products approved by the EPA or Food and Drug Administration to wipe down contact surfaces that may have been touched by guests or employees. Additionally, the dining facilities will be shut down in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner periods to undergo thorough cleanings. During those shutdown periods, public health protocols will be reviewed with the dining staff.

There will be no self-service at any dining facility. Drinks will be poured by employees and left on counters to be taken by diners. 

The university has designed each dining hall differently, in order to offer guests the opportunity to choose from several dining experiences. International Village will be open for a more traditional dining experience, with the exception of self service, and make-your-own offerings: All food will be served by the staff and there will be limited seating based on public health guidelines. Stetson East will offer food that is pre-packaged to go; guests will be able to choose whether to take them to go or sit in the limited available dining space. Stetson West will offer only takeaway meals. 

In order to supply seating in a safe environment, diners will be encouraged to eat at any of the four tents that Northeastern has acquired for the reopening of the Boston campus. The tents are similar to those that are being utilized by many restaurants throughout the U.S. that have reopened to outdoor dining in accordance with public health guidelines. 

The sides of the tents may be raised or lowered, depending on the weather, and will be equipped with air purifiers as needed. In addition to providing an  outdoor facility for diners, the tents may also be reserved online on a limited basis for use by student clubs. The tents will be subject to the same cleaning schedule as indoor spaces.

Recreation, refreshed

Recreational facilities at Marino Center and Badger and Rosen SquashBusters Center will also be available. Both have building-wide HVAC systems.

Users will be able to use an app to schedule workouts up to three days in advance. Attendance will be capped at 40 percent of capacity, and a halo of 14 feet will be established around each piece of exercise equipment. 

Users will scan themselves into the facility. They’ll arrive wearing a mask and carrying their own water, towel, and other gear. Bathrooms will be available, but there will be no access to showers or locker rooms. Hand sanitizers and alcohol wipes will be available to wipe down exercise equipment before and after use. Sections of the facility will be closed throughout the day to enable systematic cleanings.  

Northeastern has suspended fall varsity sports with the goal of rescheduling them for spring 2021. Student-athletes who are training at Matthews Arena, Cabot Center, and Parsons Field will be allowed to participate in individual workouts only. The athletes will show up in face masks and their workout gear, and they will be expected to maintain distancing of six feet.

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