Editor's note: Reprinted from the August 2020 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
James Kossler was taking a break at home when his phone rang.
It was Marcus Castle. The Grand Canyon University Emergency Preparedness Manager, his synapses firing from weeks of COVID-19 planning, rattled off an idea. What did Kossler, the campus’ Vice President of Facilities Planning and Operations, think?
“It (coronavirus planning) was never out of mind. There were lots of discussions, lots of early morning meetings. And then just sharing different (news) articles of, ‘Hey, did you see this? Look at this study,’” Kossler said.
His job is to take the ideas Castle and the rest of the COVID-19 Health and Safety Committee have molded and turn them into tangible solutions, from creating sanitization stations, to installing more than 250 plexiglass barriers at customer service points, to generating more shade for outdoor gatherings.
For the Health and Safety Committee – the core think tank of the University’s coronavirus prevention efforts — going from idea to reality in preparing the campus for a life-changing event as Herculean as a global pandemic seemed impossible when GCU’s COVID-19 Task Force first met in February.
While finishing the spring semester seemed organic — “Let’s go online, it’s in our wheelhouse,” everyone agreed – planning for 2020-21 was daunting. But not scary.
“I wouldn’t use the word scary,” said Castle, the eternal problem-solver. “It’s an opportunity. Here’s the challenge in front of you. How do you solve it?”
Castle has been solving such complex challenges for some time, bringing his expertise to GCU from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, where he worked as planning supervisor. And Kossler has dealt with the same kind of complexity when it comes to facilities planning, serving as a civil engineer officer for the Air Force for 26 years, the last two of those overseeing a $31.3 billion physical plant.
The Health and Safety Committee, one of 11 committees funneling information to GCU President Brian Mueller and the task force, has leaned on a planning document — GCU’s coronavirus bible — from which every decision regarding COVID-19 is rooted.
The goal of the committee, which guides all the other task force committees, is simple: Above all, create a safe campus environment.
The key planning principles to reach that goal, as outlined in that document, are physical distancing, self-monitoring, and quarantine and isolation measures to protect the most vulnerable and to minimize spread.
“No matter what we do or when we do it, until there’s a vaccine and COVID is past us, we’re hoping that initial document we put together to help us develop a response will be that guiding light for us all,” Castle said.
That light was shining on the members of the Health and Safety Committee in those overwhelming days when the process began.
How do you plan the safety of what is essentially a small city?
“The college atmosphere is different. The communal living — we have a lot of shared spaces. You have a lot of people in a small area. It’s very dense,” said Connie Colbert, Director of the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic. College students love to socialize, she added, at events that make the campus a unique experience. And then there’s the fact that COVID-19 has been shrouded in mystery thus far.
“What has made it difficult is the unknown,” Colbert said.
Castle calls COVID-19 a moving invisible target. What that has meant is the Health and Safety Committee has had to zig and zag and change plans every time COVID-19 revealed a little more about itself.
“I think the most difficult aspect of what we’ve been trying to do is understand the coronavirus,” he said. “Guidance (from health officials) can change overnight.
Recommendations are happening all the time, and trying to stay on top of everything coronavirus 24/7 is really the key for us in our planning and development.”
A big part of the planning involves formulating Option A, B, C and D. Which plan is used depends on the guidelines that day.
“I think you would find out for every committee, they made multiple plans for multiple scenarios,” said Kossler, who shared the anatomy of one decision: to mask or not?
“We weren’t going toward masks at the beginning of summer, but now we have this spike in Arizona and it looks like for the foreseeable future that it makes the most sense. It’s those kinds of discussions – what’s on the ground, what’s happening now and being able to adjust.”
Multiple scenarios. Multiple plans.
It’s a vastly different scene from the seemingly impossible task the committee faced six months ago.
It took this giant machine of GCU, fueled by collaboration, to get it all done.
“The philosophy of GCU is that we can do this — we can do anything,” said Dr. Lisa Smith, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. “When all of this happened, there was a moment, of course, of shock and awe. When the governor’s orders came out and everything shut down, there’s that short period of time where you feel like you’re almost a robot. You’re just going through the motions because there’s just all these things you have to do.
“But once everybody got through that, the very next words out of everyone’s mouth … Brian, as our leader, said that if anybody can do this, GCU can do it. Everybody was like, ‘Yes! We can figure this out!’”
Said Castle, “I think one of the things President Mueller talks about is GCU being as transparent as possible, as far as why are we are adding a safety measure. As we challenge all GCU students to find their purpose, our purpose in COVID planning is to help students feel safe and comfortable on campus.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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