As we continue to navigate the course of this pandemic, our team at BBS took some time to have a conversation with some of our community members and leaders in different industries, to discuss some key questions we all had about where we are now, how we got here, what the future might look like, and key commonalities we’re all facing across our respective communities. This conversation took place via Zoom on July 8, 2020.
BBS Partner, Kevin Walsh, a licensed architect, ALEP & LEED AP, was joined by Lars Clemensen, Superintendent of Hampton Bays Public Schools, David Kennedy, Executive Director of the Greater Patchogue Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donlon, Director of Port Jefferson Free Library, Emily Streeter, and Christine Cusack of BBS.
Here is what our socially distanced conversation about making connections looked like:
This transcript has been edited for brevity.
Q: How are you functioning presently, and what do you plan to do next (physically, scheduling, hours of operations, etc.)?
DK (Patchogue Chamber): Our office serves as the visitors center for the Village; we are back to operating at normal hours but there is less traffic in the office. We are following protocols with masks, PPE, and health questionnaires. One of the main functions of the Chamber is to communicate to businesses downtown what they need to do or not to do, helping them understand state guidance on phases. There has been a lot of confusion about phases and how phases work; who’s allowed to do what and when. Our restaurants are following protocols and the Village is allowing Main Street to close to traffic on Sundays to allow for outdoor seating as restaurants can only be at 50% capacity. Retail businesses have been some of the hardest hit, in part due to online shopping that will continue to be a challenge.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): The quieter summer time for schools was a welcome opportunity to take a breath and try to figure out contingency plans. Our staff is subject to health screenings each day, we maintain visitors logs, hold virtual meetings whenever possible; we’re building efficiency out of necessity. I’m glad BBS is coordinating this conversation – a component we can’t neglect is how we use our physical space. Hearing the thought process of how we design space to be used in different ways is important; schools are not just long hallways with classrooms attached to them. There are lots of smart ways we can use space if we have kids back together in September–possibly reduce the number of kids in sections and classrooms to reduce capacity or keep same kids together all day.
Thinking about the instruction model: Are we all back in? Are we all out? Or are we some kind of hybrid and then what does the hybrid mean? What are cleaning requirements and how will that impact the student schedule, i.e. A-day / B-day schedule? If schools schedules are impacted by limiting capacity and cleaning requirements, what does that mean for families who need childcare? This is a nuanced issue. We want to go back, there is nothing more that a teacher wants than to be with their kids, that’s why they chose this profession. We realize that there’s a lot that’s lost in digital learning but if that’s what we have to do then we have to make that better. And then, if we’re going to be back in person, we have to make that safer. Those are really the two thoughts we’re having right now; how do you make the physical space safer, and how do you make the remote learning piece better. The last three months we pivoted and turned on a dime to teach remotely. We pivoted very quickly in an institution that hasn’t really changed since the Civil War. We didn’t run regents exams this year. Regents exams started in 1865. We’re pushing reset button on what’s important: physical safety and quality of instruction.
TD (Port Jefferson Free Library): The Port Jefferson Free Library has not yet opened, we’re renovating during quiet time! We have 50% of staff is still working from home. we’ll be keeping as much outside as possible for curbside to avoid people entering building. PPE, social distancing, will start allowing people to come in at 50% capacity. Removed almost all tables and chairs to reduce loitering/lingering. Asking public for 30 minute time limit while browsing, one way aisles, separate staff and public bathrooms. Teen center across the street being used as book return. Security will be on site to address non-masked guests. E-books – Overdrive, Hoopla – many books/music/etc can be accessed from home. I’m proud of how library staff turned on a dime and went to online programming.
KW (BBS): People and places. We’re a business too and have been very conservative about bringing staff back to the office. For our clients,we’ve been trying to figure out “how can we help?” For schools and libraries we’re doing planning studies – spatial planning for reduced capacity. We’ve been asking, ‘Can kindergartners social distance? What can be done? What shouldn’t we even try?’
For starters, we should at least initially simplify the approach to space. We have been studying both mathematically and graphically to create square footages per occupant for different levels of distancing in spaces having different types of activity. In schools, we’re looking at decisions like moving classrooms into cafeterias for more space. Cafeterias possibly don’t serve lunch. Bagged lunches are served instead to control the number of people coming in and out.
With regard to engineering the focus has been on air filters for HVAC units. First, make sure everything is working! Replace filters with MERV-13 or the highest rated filter you can fit in the filter banks, and make sure the system can accommodate the more restrictive filters. Increase outdoor air rates, possibly up to 100% during appropriate weather conditions. Keep HVAC and exhaust systems running longer, possibly 24/7 to flush out the buildings. Open windows to improve natural ventilation, as long as it doesn’t create a health and safety risk. Consider portable room air cleaners with HEPA filtration as well. Also keep in mind that most of these strategies will use more energy and will increase the cost of utility use.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): I’m more comfortable and confident in our trusted relationship with BBS. Conversations among school Superintendents have encouraged relying on long term relationships; they are valuable. We’re seeing so many ‘cottage industries’ pop up because of COVID. Having trusted partners and relying on them as opposed to buying into products or ‘feel good products’ that are ultimately not worth the money. Peddlers are out in full force.
Q: How are others in your sector fairing? Have there been any creative innovations that stand out in your mind?
DK (Patchogue Chamber): Better Man Distilling, a local craft distillery – created the virtual bar crawl during the first week of the pandemic that was extremely popular. This business gained popularity because of their creative ideas during pandemic. Family Melody, a long-established local music store, went online to sell products for the first time. As far as local restaurants – some have decided to go to take-out only because they were so successful with take out sales. Some business are rethinking their business models entirely. Delivery of (alcoholic) drinks (take out drinks) may now stay forever.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): For schools, its totally innovated the way we instruct. The number of teachers that were terrified of a digital platform to connect with kids are now embracing it. It will transform teaching even when we return to the classroom. It removes some barriers and reinforces relationships between teachers and students. Unfortunately, fully remote learning left some kids out of touch as a result of issues of equity or other challenges. Communication has been totally innovated from District to Community. Video innovation allows for a connection that is lost when we can’t be together in person. We can continue to share emotion. As District leaders, we set the standard for our we want our communities to behave. Using this type of communication can continue after the pandemic.
KW (BBS): Driving 6 hours round trip in the car for a business meeting is now replaced by a 30 minute Zoom. It changes a lot of business thought, expenditures, everything.
DK (Patchogue Chamber): The technology has helped us with board meeting attendance. On Zoom we are now at 100% because its more convenient than in-person meetings.
KW (BBS): Efficiency is a good thing but we need to balance the other binding social things.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): We can check all the efficiency boxes in how we recognize kids. But is that the fulfilling experience that our kids deserve? This years’ graduations have been done safely and align with the Governor’s orders and also recognize each child’s accomplishments and honored their milestones. The last three months shouldn’t determine how they end their 13 year school career. It took more work but we did 150 individual graduation ceremonies over the course of 2 days. It was NOT efficient but was more important to us to make the children feel special. In this case the quality was more important than the efficiency. This redefines what’s important.
KW (BBS): This is similar to the change in the shopping experience. I’m a hunter-gatherer and like to browse in real time and space. I don’t get the same satisfaction from online shopping. Physical interaction and physical touch is hard to replace.
TD (Port Jefferson Free Library): This is also the case for our library patrons. They can get any book they want on Amazon, but going to the library was an “event” for them. Sometimes it’s about the event and feeling special. Some patrons would spend hours at the library. Some elderly patrons suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go. Some of these people started to attend our Zoom meetings to stay connected. Others sort-of ‘fell off a cliff’ and we didn’t hear from them. Pretty early on, our library staff began calling those patrons to check on them. In a way it became like a welfare check, to keep connected and make sure our patrons were OK. Reaching out in this way helped keep and build community.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): We also instituted wellness checks. Academics and wellness checks were separated. Staff followed a script to hit a few points 1. Are you healthy? 2. Do you emotionally feel well? 3. Do you have childcare? 4. Do you have internet access? 5. Do you have access to food? Parents and/or kids could answer. Staff completed answers in a Google Form and then we could get a sense of who was in need. Staff then followed up to make sure their needs were met with resources available to the school. We know that people were frustrated with the situation caused by the pandemic but the school never became the focus of that frustration because we were being proactive.
KW (BBS): We saw through budget vote results that our social institutions were really validated. Libraries and schools fared well in this year’s budget votes.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): Business had to figure this out already, but part of the innovation that has occurred is that schools have to continue cultivating “customer base.” We instituted Facebook live bedtime stories every night! It’s like a social bank account – keep making deposits so when things get stressful, the community still supports you.
Q: How do you think schools, libraries and businesses are related in this situation? What can we learn from each other?
KW (BBS): The common denominator is people. People are still nervous and feeling cautious. It’s about the movement and proximity of people. Apartment dwellers now may want a yard. Sense of place, sense of space, sense of freedom, are all important components for people’s psyche. Interaction is important no matter how it happens. We need to both motivate people to be safe and remain together somehow. If we can’t be together, how do we approximate that? Sense of community is the commonality among all these components of life.
DK (Patchogue Chamber): Our success in Patchogue Village has been attracting young people and the creation of apartment residences. Young people in Patchogue don’t want to be tied down. COVID may put a huge halt on young people’s lifestyles. Crowded city/apartment lifestyles may be on the decline and there could be an affect on city living in exchange for more space and less crowding.
KW (BBS): We’ve also been thinking of reinvention of resources to accommodate social and spatial needs. For example, vacant big-box retail space created by changes in shopping habits might be re-purposed for educational institutions needing more space for social distancing.
LC (Hampton Bays Schools): In a post-pandemic world, you can ask any question. There’s no bad idea now. “We’ve always done it this way” is no longer a valid excuse. It’s an opportunity to ask why. Why do we do regents exams? Because we’ve done them since 1865. All bets are off. Now is the time to ask questions. The pandemic has also shown that human connection is so vitally important and irreplaceable.
Christine Cusack (Business Administrator, BBS): We HAD to change. We had no choice. When considering these big questions and new ideas, it can be fear that holds us back from making change. When the pandemic hit, we didn’t have time to be afraid before we made big changes. We CAN pivot and change is possible.
At BBS, we are continuing to stay connected with July 13’s “NYS Reopening Guidance” for schools, (including ongoing updates), the Governor’s Phasing for public libraries and businesses and overall Community Sentiment. Together, we can all reduce anxiety and mitigate pandemic-related risk through thoughtful and inclusive planning. For information on how we can help, contact us in our Long Island Office at 631-475-0349 or at email@example.com or in our Albany Office at 518-621-7650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.