Facilities and Operations Prepares Campus for Occupancy During COVID-19

Editor's note:

The precautionary actions described herein represent the key components of Facilities and Operations' COVID-19 mitigation strategy. This article is not intended to serve as an exhaustive and comprehensive list of Facilities and Operations' preparations for campus occupancy.

July 28, 2020

With the health and safety of the Columbia community as our highest priority, Facilities and Operations has taken multiple actions to ready campus for occupancy for the coming academic year while the COVID-19 pandemic remains a major public health threat.  

Columbia’s return to campus protocols were developed in consultation with University experts as well as national, state and local health entities, including the CDCNew York State Department of HealthAmerican Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA).  

“These measures, in tandem with the individual behaviors articulated in the University’s Enhanced Health and Safety Policy including wearing a face covering, maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others, and washing hands frequently, will help ensure as much as possible the health and safety of our campus community as we work together to help slow the spread of this virus, ” says David Greenberg, Executive Vice President of Columbia University Facilities and Operations. 

Each building was assessed for opening, which included a review of the ventilation and plumbing systems, cleaning and custodial protocols, space usage, and signage needs.  

Facilities and Operations has completed a comprehensive, ramp-up checklist to ensure that the primary equipment of each building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are in full operation while completing upgrades as appropriate. Preparations and inspections focused on enhanced maintenance, filtration, and ventilation. The following actions were taken: 

  • Operational and maintenance inspections to ensure ventilation systems are operating properly 

  • Increased frequency of preventative maintenance measures on key pieces of equipment 

  • Upgraded air filters, where possible, to a level efficient at capturing airborne viruses according to industry standards to reduce the potential concentration of particles in the air 

  • Increased circulation of outdoor air to minimize or eliminate recirculation of central HVAC air, where possible 

  • HVAC systems operating at a frequency that meets or exceeds industry recommendations to facilitate the removal of potential virus particles from the building and to reduce the settlement of virus particles onto surfaces 

  • Maintain negative pressure in all restrooms to sweep air from the room and to minimize fecal-oral transmission from toilet flush aerosol. Operate toilet exhausts 24/7. 

  • Investigate the use of UV technologies in air handling units and air ducts to prevent propagation of airborne viruses where filtration and ventilation solutions are difficult 

For more detailed information about ventilation system preparations and maintenance, please review the Columbia University Facilities and Operations HVAC Operating & Maintenance Protocols for COVID-19.  

The COVID-19 custodial plan focuses on enhanced cleaning and disinfecting. Columbia Operations uses Genefect to disinfect high-touch surfaces. Genefect is EPA-approved for use against the virus that causes COVID-19. The new plan meets—and in some areas exceeds—newly issued standards from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), New York State Department of Health, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Highlights of the new plan include: 

  • A comprehensive cleaning of each building per CDC guidelines. 

  • Disinfecting high-touch public spaces twice daily, surpassing CDC guidelines, including doorknobs, elevator buttons, handrails, light switches, bathroom fixtures, public phones, and water fountains. 

  • Electrostatic cleaning in classrooms and public spaces, an enhancement to CDC and NYS Department of Health guidelines.  

  • Increasing steam cleaning of restrooms. Steam cleaning of restrooms disinfects without chemicals, using heat from steam to disinfect and kill germs. This process is an enhancement to CDC and New York State Department of Health guidelines. 

  • Fogging and disinfecting in the gym and auditoriums. This process is an effective way to disinfect large, open areas and is an enhancement to CDC and NYS Department of Health guidelines. Fogging generates an aerosol that uses evaporation to quickly disperse disinfecting vapor throughout large spaces. Fogging was not performed at the University prior to COVID-19. 

In addition to enhanced cleaning, Facilities and Operations has implemented several changes at the building level to improve health and safety on campus: 

  • Converting restroom fixtures to operate automatically. New touchless faucets, paper towel dispensers, and flushometers are being installed where possible to improve restroom hygiene.  

  • Installing hand sanitizer stations. Sanitizing dispensers are located in main entrance lobbies, and the number of stations will be increased for all campus buildings. 

  • Additional inspection of public spaces in all campus buildings, increasing inspection frequency to twice daily in lobbies and restrooms, including checking and refilling hand sanitizer, soap dispensers, and paper towel and toilet paper dispensers. 

  • Augmenting cleaning supplies. Supplies in use are rated to disinfect SARS-COV-2 virus. 

Additional information about cleaning and disinfecting can be found on the COVID-19 Cleaning and Disinfecting webpage, in the Columbia University Facilities and Operations Custodial Operating Protocols, and in the Restroom Use & Maintenance Bulletin

Planning and Capital Project Management (CPM) is conducting Facilities Assessments with building managers across campus to identify signage needs and space and furniture modifications, such as staggering chairs or desks to accommodate physical distancing recommendations. Facilities Assessments are an ongoing process.

In addition, CPM has created a catalog of Risk Assessment Overlays of different space types and circulation areas in use around the University with accompanying space modification guidelines. The catalog includes administrative offices, libraries and study areas, classrooms and lounges, dining facilities, public thoroughfares and more. For more information, please review the Interim Space Use and Modification Guidelines page. 

Systems in all buildings have continued operating continuously through the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities and Operations has conducted a comprehensive flush and check of each building’s plumbing system to ensure the system is in working order and to guard against microbial hazards that have the potential to surface due to the reduction in normal water usage at the buildings. 

Educational, directional, and safety signage is being installed across campus. The comprehensive signage facilitates physical distancing among building occupants – particularly in high-traffic areas – and reminds and encourages behaviors to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

Signage covered several areas, including: 

  • Health guidance and etiquette 

  • Behavioral best practices 

  • Circulation and egress 

  • Max capacities (elevators, restrooms, conference rooms) 

  • Offices and workspaces 

  • Communal areas (lounges, kitchens) 

  • Queuing areas 

Signage in public spaces (elevators, lobbies, restrooms, etc.) are being installed by Facilities and Operations. 

Columbia Transportation is working with their shuttle provider, Academy Bus; black car service provider, Luxury; and Evening Shuttle partner, Via, to update cleaning and safety protocols in light of COVID-19. This includes enhanced daily cleanings, mandatory face coverings, maintaining physical distance by reducing shuttle capacity to 50% and limiting car service and Via rides to one passenger or only passengers of the same party per car.  

For more detailed information about operational changes and safety measures during COVID-19, visit the Transportation website

The COVID-19 mitigation strategies enacted by Facilities and Operations are part of a cross-functional effort to protect the health of our community. In collaboration with working groups for Public Health, Research, and Academic Planning, Facilities and Operations has assessed and will continue to monitor the evolving situation to establish frameworks for the University to resume operations.