How COVID-19 is Impacting Facility Operations at Higher Education institutions

Ted Dow, PE

Facility managers can use the COVID shutdown to ensure they meet regulatory compliance when schools open back up.

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COVID-19 has presented remarkable challenges to individuals, corporations and institutions. In many instances, unprecedented mitigation actions have been taken to protect customers, staff and the general public. Higher education institutions in many countries have shifted operations from physical campuses to virtual platforms – a crucial contribution to combat the spread of the virus. Students, staff and teachers are now working from home, leaving university and college campuses and facilities empty. Rather than leave these facilities dormant, institutions should consider taking advantage of unoccupied or limited occupancy buildings to conduct regulatory compliance evaluations, maintenance and safety and security upgrades to address the new challenges brought by the coronavirus or pre-existing exposures.

Higher Education Regulatory Compliance and Maintenance

In the current environment, there are opportunities for institutions to optimize physical facilities for students, faculty and staff before their return to campuses. Unoccupied or limited occupancy buildings are well positioned for catching up with or getting ahead of evaluations and regulatory inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) activities including, but not limited to:

  • Fire sprinkler system ITM (including corrosion testing and sprinkler head testing)
  • Fire pump ITM
  • Fire alarm system ITM
  • Smoke control system ITM (atrium, stair pressurization, elevator hoistway pressurization)
  • Laboratory hazardous material quantity analysis
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Readily Achievable Barrier Removal

Safety and Security of Physical Campuses

In addition to standard ITM activity, return to campuses may necessitate re-evaluation and modification of existing facility, security and emergency action plans. Campus master planning should be reevaluated to understand and respond to impacts of COVID-19, including re-purposing of building group and amenity spaces and introduction of additional hygiene equipment. It’s important to develop plans for multiple buildings and campuses that are consistent, accessible and easy to manage while providing real-time access to appropriate staff. Evaluation of existing facility conditions can provide valuable data to inform those discussions. Depending on the unique factors of each campus, some activities to consider include:

  • Property condition assessments
  • Universal Design/Accessibility facility and campus evaluation
  • Fire protection, security and life safety system evaluations
  • Emergency action plans, fire pre-plans and operational continuity plans

Emerging from the COVID-19 shutdowns in a safe, informed and effective way is the primary goal of institutions. While there are many factors to consider, being proactive in regulatory compliance and maintenance – as well as safety and security – will help to ensure a smooth re-opening process. Utilizing appropriate technology to manage safety and security will also be important to the continued safety of campuses. Higher education facilities should consider utilizing the time they have now to stay ahead of the curve and be in the best position possible as governments begin to ease restrictions.

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