How college stayed open for students during the pandemic

In March 2020, life as we knew it ground to a halt. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was huge, changing almost every aspect of college life. In this new interview series, we speak with different members of the Green Templeton staff about their experiences of working during a pandemic.

Today’s interview: the Lodge team

Green Templeton has remained open for students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In line with government guidelines, some departments have been working from home, while others, such as The Lodge, maintenance, cleaning and catering, have remained on-site to ensure essential college operations that allow accommodation to stay open continue to run smoothly.

The Lodge is at the heart of college life: a busy, bustling building that, pre-pandemic, was a hive of activity as people popped in and out throughout the day. The Lodge team’s responsibilities also include monitoring the fire alarms, security and safety of the college site. Here, Head Porter Dan Cooper and Porter Anne Highsmith discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted The Lodge, and the new tasks the team took on, including delivering food and parcels to self-isolating students.

When did you realise COVID-19 was going to have a major impact on your role?

Dan Cooper

Dan: I think once the virus reached Italy then we realised it was only a matter of time before it came to us. When people started going into lockdown abroad, that’s when I realised COVID-19 would have a big impact on college and would change everything for us.

Anne: When the news came we were in lockdown, we had to empty the gym and get people out. The library had to close and we were in there trying to get students to leave. One student had two suitcases they were filling, others had bags. That had a huge impact on me. I remember saying, ‘You have got to leave, you have got to leave.’ I think that was my moment of realising what was to come. We had practised things like locking The Lodge door and having the window open to talk with people but that Friday afternoon had the biggest impact.

What major changes have you seen at college over the last year?

Dan: There were hardly any students around for a long time, especially during lockdown one. At one point we had four ducks, two foxes, a badger and a cat to look after instead! It was so quiet at college that the foxes, cat and ducks would turn up wanting food every morning, so we’d feed them.

College went from a busy, bustling place to so quiet it felt like you were working a Sunday shift every day of the week. I live in Swindon and driving to work each morning I’d pass around three cars in 30-odd miles. There was a lot of fear in the air. Everyone was worried. At the height of it, students were turning up at The Lodge saying, ‘I’m going, I’m getting out of here before it gets bad’, dropping their keys and just leaving. We got a lot of that every day for the first couple of weeks.

Anne Highsmith

Anne: The quietness and the loneliness, really. I was very lonely as we were working in single-person teams from March to June. And just the unknown. Another big change was no traffic on the roads. That was a huge thing I noticed coming into work on the Monday morning. Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely! But it was a massive change. We were all given letters to keep in our cars in case we got stopped by police to ask why we were on the roads during lockdown. The letters stated we were members of the college and keyworkers. I never put myself down as a keyworker but we were. So those were the biggest changes: having a letter in the car in case police stopped me, no traffic, and the loneliness.

Did you have to make changes to how The Lodge team ran?

Dan: Normally we are a 24/7 operation and there will be a couple of us working together each day in The Lodge, but during the height of the pandemic we became a single person team working in shifts alone of either 6am to 2pm or 2pm until 10pm. We would close The Lodge at 10pm instead of remaining open overnight.

Jola, one of our porters, left her family for five weeks to move into one of the college houses on Observatory Street so she could monitor the fire alarms and things like that from 10pm when The Lodge closed. If she hadn’t done that we probably wouldn’t have been able to close the main Lodge counter at night. We had to continue providing the essential services to keep the accommodation open such as security, fire alarms, and other safety measures. And even when we were on shortened hours, we were always on the end of the phone for anyone who needed us.

Have any aspects of your job changed because of the pandemic?

Dan: We’ve got a new booking system we never had before the pandemic. That took a lot of setting up as I had never used something like it before. It was to allow students to use facilities like the library, gym and other places that became a bookable space so we could control numbers which is obviously something we never did before COVID. We have also been taking parcels to people who were isolating and bringing them food. We have been around throughout the whole pandemic. Even if people didn’t see us, we were still there, working away.

Anne: Oh, masses of aspects! Huge! We are the first port of call for COVID now. We give out all the Lateral Flow Tests to everybody; that’s done through us, nobody else. An email will come through from the Early Alert System saying who has gone for a test. We have to send reports every morning saying who is self-isolating and whether they have symptoms or no symptoms. In college, when everything was locked down and rooms like the library were on a booking system, we had to let people in. COVID has had a massive impact on our jobs. For example, if I sent a contractor down to Rewley Abbey Court and somebody was self-isolating with symptoms that would be my fault, even if I’m not the contractor’s boss. We do feel very relied on.

The Lodge is also responsible for the fire alarms and safety aspects like security so without your team working on-site, none of the college accommodation could have remained open during the lockdown, right?

Anne: Yes, we have continued to monitor the fire alarms throughout the lockdown. We still do all the college mail, book people into their accommodation, ensure people have the right keys, deal with the contractors. Our everyday job has continued and then we have everything that COVID has brought with it on top of that. But my whole thing the whole way through is I’d much rather be here than not here. I absolutely want to be here.

How have the team coped during the pandemic?

Dan: Everyone has been great, brilliant. They haven’t made any fuss whatsoever, just chipped in and got on with it. We were all a little worried at the beginning but because we kept everyone apart in shifts, it kept everyone safe, even if we were a bit lonely.

Have you felt safe in college?

Dan: The pandemic was worrying at first. I nearly died from swine flu nearly ten years earlier so when they started saying it was a type of flu and people were dying from it, I was really worried as I’d been quite close to death before, so it was scary. But, yes,  I’ve felt safe. To be honest, after the first two months I haven’t ever not felt safe.

Hand sanitiser at the entrance to Green Templeton College

We’ve implemented lots of different safety measures over the year. We locked The Lodge door for a period and were serving people through the big window next to the door. We didn’t have people in The Lodge for a long time and when we did reopen we put a big screen across The Lodge counter as a protective measure. We’ve always been well looked after and felt safe in the college. We had masks and gloves from day one, and I can’t even imagine how many cans of antibacterial spray and other cleaning products we’ve gone through! We used to joke that we are probably immune to any illness now as we probably inhale so many antibacterial fumes we couldn’t catch anything! The Lodge counter is a completely different colour to pre-pandemic because the cleaning products we spray on it are so strong they’ve changed the colour.

What has been the most common student request over the last year?

Dan: The main thing they’ve wanted throughout is to get into the gym! If the gym had stayed open we probably wouldn’t have heard anything from them! They’ve wanted to see their friends, of course, but have understood why they can’t. Our students who remained in Oxford have been great. Everyone in college took it seriously and just got on with things as best they could.

Anne: The students have been brilliant. I feel quite sorry for them that they haven’t been able to experience everything they should be experiencing at college so we keep talking to them and trying to jolly them along: ‘This is a picture of what the ball would have looked like!’ The marquee is up on site so they can sit outside and now the Stables Bar is open for them to sit inside. When I opened the Stables Bar door for people to finally go inside, that was a great feeling!

Have you been able to get to know this year’s students despite the restrictions on mixing?

A banner reading 'Think! Social Distancing. Keep 2m apart in this area'

COVID secure safety measures are in place across college

Dan: I’d say in some respects it’s been harder to get to know students as you don’t see as many around college, and some only came for a couple of months then left and haven’t been back on site since lockdown. But on the other hand, the students who did stay, we are probably closer to than students in previous years. What’s actually been hard for us is recognising students when they have a face mask on!

Anne: COVID has impacted how we greet students, now we have to wear masks and it’s one person in The Lodge at a time only. It’s been difficult getting to know students who started in September when everybody has a mask on. We have done it and we know them and are with them, but equally we can’t wait to ‘see’ them. There’s also pressure when it’s wet and cold and you can see a queue outside The Lodge and you’re trying to be quick with the person inside so you can get to everybody in the line.

With such an international student body, has there ever been any confusion over the ever-changing government guidance?

Dan: We have had a few cases of people coming back from other countries with different rules and telling us, ‘Well, we’re allowed to do that in this country’ or ‘We’re not allowed to do that in this country’ and we’d have to explain our current rules were slightly different. What we could do in this country wasn’t always the same in other countries. The guidance constantly changes. That really was one of the hardest things for us. Every day was a new rule, something different, something changing.

Anne: Our Domestic Bursar Teresa is brilliant at passing on the latest guidance and saying ‘get rid of that bit, add this bit which is new.’

Is there anything you’ve particularly missed over the last year?

Dan: I’m not someone who goes out much so the lockdown didn’t affect me too much in that way as I don’t go anywhere anyway! But I think I miss just being able to do stuff without thinking about it. Just walking out and into a building without thinking, ‘Have I got a mask? Have I sanitised my hands? Who is in this building? Does it have someone with a positive test? How many are isolating?’ I miss just being able to walk freely around college and not consciously think about what or who has been in the different buildings. The freedom to just move is what we miss. It does feel weird.

I can’t remember a day when you aren’t talking about COVID to someone. What will we talk about after COVID? What did we used to do? What did we do for a job? We used to come to work and work all day long but it doesn’t seem like anything we used to do we do anymore, all we do is now COVID-related! It was worrying and quite scary at the beginning but then we sort of got used to it and got into a rhythm and a pattern of working and it just became normal in a weird sort of way. You don’t really remember a time when it was any different now, to be honest.

A marquee has been erected in front of the Radcliffe Observatory to provide an outdoor meeting and dining space for students

Anne: I’d love for more people to come back into the college again and it to feel normal. That’s probably because I’ve been here the whole time but that normality would be brilliant. Just seeing people around again. We had some Fellows in yesterday and we were chatting to them and their emotions are huge. One said, ‘Just walking up here after a year, I can’t tell you how good that felt.’ For us, that’s amazing.

Have you been able to take any time off over the last year?

Dan: I did get a week off in November. We haven’t had Christmas yet as we had to stay open for Christmas whereas we’d normally close. We didn’t close at Easter either, when we normally would. Myself and Anne worked nearly every day of Christmas and New Year so it’s been a long year. One day we’ll get to celebrate Christmas! Once we can do something fairly normal I’m going to take the team out for dinner. We are just waiting for it to get a little bit more normal and then we’ll arrange someone to cover The Lodge and we’ll get out for a meal.

Anne: I didn’t take any time off last year but didn’t feel I needed any. This year, though, we have booked our holiday as normal so I’m about to take a week off. I’m just thankful I am here. COVID has had a huge impact but hopefully little by little we will get back to normal. I don’t want a new normal. That’s definitely my mantra – I want normal, not a new normal!

Created: 23 June 2021

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