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Clearing snow isn’t easy. COVID-19 has made it even harder.

Students walk through a snow covered campus. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Mark Boulter has been leading snow removal at Northeastern for 23 years, so he knew what he was up against Monday: Though a forecast of nine or more inches Monday morning was downgraded in the afternoon, clearing the snow and ice would still be a massive undertaking. And this year has brought another complication: the public health and safety guidelines of the COVID-19 pandemic, designed to keep the snow removal workers safe.

“It’s very challenging,” said Boulter, Northeastern’s senior director of building services. “We’ve had to put strict protocols in place.”

The plan was for 135 workers to assemble across the Massachusetts campuses Monday afternoon, as soon as the snow started collecting on the sidewalks and roads. But while Boulter usually gathers his team in a single group, that was out of the question in 2021.

Members of the facilities team prepare for a snow storm. Photos by Matthew Modoono and Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“We used to meet together and I would give my speech with the game plan and how we were going to accomplish it,” Boulter said. “We can’t gather in such big numbers like that anymore, and so we divide up into smaller groups. We talk on the phone with the team leaders and give them direction. But the main thing—and we said this right from the get-go—is that we’ve got to keep masks on and maintain social distancing. We’ve got to keep spread out.”

In cleanup operations at the Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Dedham, Burlington, and Nahant, Boulter’s teams of 75 contract workers were separated from the 60 Northeastern employees who undergo twice-a-week testing and other strict protocols.

“We’ve been keeping all of the contractors away as best as possible from the Northeastern crews, because here at Northeastern we’re getting tested multiple times a week,” Boulter said. “But it’s not so much with the contractors, because they’re not here every day.”

Northeastern has re-examined all of its snow removal operations to account for the pandemic, said Jack Malone, associate vice president of facilities.

“We had to realign all of our policies and procedures,” said Malone, who has worked with Boulter for four decades at Northeastern. “Everything we do, we had to look at differently.”

Based on the initial expectations of a heavy nor’easter, all classes went fully remote starting at noon Monday. The tents that have been erected on campus during the pandemic would also be closed based on a forecast of heavy winds, said Boulter. 

A priority during storms this year is to keep Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing centers open and running on schedule. When close to a foot of snow fell in a mid-December blizzard, Boulter’s crews succeeded in scraping and melting the ice to keep the centers operating.

Boulter used to be able to send his snow workers into cafeterias for breaks. Those spaces are no longer available.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges,” Boulter said. “But I’ve still got to keep these people fed and hydrated.”

Chartwells, Northeastern’s dining vendor, prepared to-go meals for the snow crew. Boulter, along with assistant director of transportation Richard Bekerian and landscape supervisor Arthur Caputi, planned to pick up the meals and deliver them to each group of workers during the storm.

That was one of many new systems Malone and Boulter have had to develop for an unprecedented year.

“It starts with where they park their cars, when and where they can have a break—we’re constantly reminding them of all the COVID things,” Malone said. “How many people do you have in the back of a truck, throwing the road salt? Everything is different.” 

Malone credited the snow team of employees and contractors with taking “a leadership role in following and maintaining the guidelines around the COVID protocols” while working extra time to keep the campuses safe.

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