06 Aug 2020
HBS Re-entry Pilot Day: An Inside Look
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by Shona Simkin


It’s Tuesday, July 28, and I’m heading into work for the first time since March. That morning, it was a familiar yet completely odd routine— deciding what to wear, figuring out the best time to leave, grabbing my mask, telling the kids when I’d be back, packing up the laptop. Those were all things I’ve done during this socially isolated time, but not in that combination, and certainly not under any sort of time constraint. It was the Re-entry Pilot Day. I was excited—a little giddy—to see the campus, to see a lot of people I knew (in person!), and to learn about and experience all the steps being taken to ensure the community’s safety.

Checking in at Schwartz Pavilion
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

The lead-up to this day was substantial. As one of the 104 volunteers (with 142 total people involved), there were multiple emails with detailed schedules and instructions, there was a re-entry orientation Zoom meeting, there were new protocols to remember, and online forms to fill out before leaving the house. The night before, I had completed the Campus Access Protocol. As part of the Protocol, I signed the Community Commitment, received my Approval to Access Campus, and made a mental note to complete Crimson Clear in the morning, as it needs to be done within 12 hours of arrival. For me, the rush of the morning was enhanced by a temporary internet outage—and a requisite burst of panic—but happily it was resolved, I printed out my clearance slip, found my HUID, and headed out.

Spangler Center Dining
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

Because I had been part of the communications contingent in several re-entry team meetings, I knew a bit of the background—the team working on this day, and on overall re-entry plans, was top notch. My confidence in this group, plus my confidence in the HBS community, combined to truly put my mind at ease about going back to campus with more than 100 people and being indoors for both instruction and dining.

I was not one of the 100 volunteers going to Harvard Stadium for a COVID-19 test. Instead I head straight to check-in at Schwartz Pavilion. Walking over from the parking lot, I recognized my first HBS colleague. A colleague! In real life! We chat about this odd summer, and run into more familiar-even-when-masked faces as we approach the Pavilion. I check in, hoping that my eyes convey my smile, grab my cute HBS hand sanitizer bottle, medical grade mask, color-coded ID tag, and information packet. I give it a quick glance and head over to chat with my coworkers in person for the first time in four months. It was again what was to be the theme of the day—familiar, yet different.

Signage on dining room tables
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

My colleagues were managing a film crew who was there to document the day, both for posterity and for use in various re-entry videos, so that added yet another layer of complexity. I was asked to re-do my walk into the Pavilion for the camera. Reader, I am neither an actress, a celebrity, nor an influencer. But I smiled behind my mask as I walked (five times!) in front of the Klarman atrium and back into Schwartz Pavilion.

Checking my schedule, it’s time for coffee and a snack in Spangler. With so many meals and points of contact, the re-entry team and Operations are particularly focused on the flow and safety of dining operations. Dining traffic has been light over the summer, but with hundreds of students returning to campus, the team needed to see what a typical morning or lunch rush might look like. The precautions were evident the moment I approach the exterior doors, clearly labeled “Enter Here” on the inside and outside to control exit and entry touchpoints. They’re locked, as they will be when classes resume, so I’m glad to have my HBS ID tucked behind my name tag.

Remote class participants in Stamps Reading Room
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

Walking through Spangler Lounge, couch seats are blocked off with blue painter’s tape, and small tables have only one chair. People are queuing up for their coffee bar orders, carefully standing on the blue tape Xs spaced six feet apart. Over at the main cafeteria, there are several people standing outside directing and instructing those of us going in—coffee to the left, hot pre-packaged breakfast items in the middle, and cold pre-packaged breakfast items on the right. There are so many options, and a lot of things to pay attention to—directional feet markings on the floor, rope lines and signage directing flow, and menu signs. I grab a smoothie and head to the register, where Rosie from RA is safely distanced behind a plexiglass barrier. Along the way, friendly faces have answered a few questions and alerted me to the various offerings. It is really, really great to interact with RA staff again. Rosie calls me ‘honey’ and I am warmed and charmed.

Signage for Thrive app
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

The dining room is all single tables with a single chair. Solitary dining feels a little sad, but it’s also comforting and gives me a chance to go over the schedule and information and check email. As I sit down, an RA staff member instantly appears with a smile and removes a small “This table has been sanitized for your safety” sign, explaining that he’ll put it back after I depart and he’s wiped everything down. This feels thorough, thoughtful, and very reassuring. And again, it’s so wonderful to see friendly faces—you can absolutely tell a smile from behind a mask, it turns out.

Next up is transitioning to either a remote location or an Aldrich classroom for a 30-minute sample class. My badge has a green stripe at the bottom, so I’m assigned to the Stamps Reading Room for remote participation in an in-person instructor course, Creating a Safe Campus Culture. I enter Stamps, find a seat at a table (all clearly marked with “available seat”) and set up my laptop and headphones. I’ve received calendar invites for each of the classes, so that I have both a timing reminder and an additional Zoom link—I find this very helpful as the day is so tightly timed. The class features Mary Corrigan from Harvard Environmental Health and Safety, talking about Harvard’s safety compliance models, with Carsten Tam, CEO of a consulting firm focused on behavioral science, joining in virtually. It’s fascinating to experience a class remotely—it’s similar to a Zoom meeting, but with many more people, options, and features to pay attention to. There are a few moments of technology and terminology challenges, but the Online Learning Facilitator chimes in with tips and the speakers are engaging. We answer a few questions via chat, several participants are called upon, and the 20-minute simulation is over before we know it.

New signage in classroom buildings
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

It’s break time next, while classrooms are thoroughly cleaned in between sessions. Each color ID badge is assigned a task: visit a basement restroom in Aldrich, ask a question at Spangler 107, or ask a question at the MBA service counter on the second floor of Spangler. I go back to Spangler for the task asked of everyone: get a snack. Being back at the cafeteria feels a bit more familiar, and I order a coffee and grab a homemade granola bar. Several of my colleagues try the Thrive app, ordering online and picking up their lunch at the Spangler Grille.

At 11:50, it’s time for the second classroom session. This time I’m in Aldrich 007 for Overview of the Hybrid Classroom with a webinar instructor, Patrice Lawless, associate director, Learning Design and Training Services. To simulate a situation in which students arrive early to a yet-to-open classroom, we were all directed to a line of blue Xs on the floor, where we waited six feet apart for the classroom to open. Once inside, there are clear signs for available seats—chairs are locked and attached to each other in front of unavailable seats, underscoring the directive to separate. There are a host of new screens in the classroom—three on the back wall, and two in front of the speaker podium. Lawless appears on the large pull-down screen in the middle blackboard, and helps with the few audio and tech glitches—in-room laptops require muting of both internal and Zoom microphones to avoid feedback. It takes a few minutes for everyone to figure it out—it’s these things that take trial and error before they become routine, but much like we figured out Zoom meetings and working remotely, it seems clear that these details will smooth out quickly. Lawless takes the crowd through the details of the new classroom—the features and purpose behind all of the modifications. It’s fascinating, and with the experience of being both a remote and in-person participant, I appreciate the different considerations.

New hybrid classroom
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

A new camera in the back of the room allows for more instinctive and natural eye contact from the professor. Two screens on one side of the camera display all Zoom participants in gallery view, so that the professor can see, and call upon, the entire group. The screen to the right of the camera is dedicated to active speaker view. Screens in front of the podium offer close-ups of remote students and a view of what they are seeing on their screens. In-room audio has been redesigned so that everyone can hear each participant, even with laptop speakers muted. Each student must have their own laptop open, so that remote students can see their in-room classmates, too. New virtual backgrounds offer consistency and larger names—they’re also much less distracting. The primary goal, says Lawless, is to create an equitable and integrated learning experience for students, and a positive teaching experience for faculty. Ten Aldrich rooms will be ready by August, and six more (four in Hawes, two more in Aldrich) will be available by mid-October.

After we exit the classroom via the specified door, we again have color-coded tasks to complete before lunch in Spangler. This time, I’m assigned to check out the women’s room in the Aldrich basement (stalls and sinks are blocked off for social distancing, foot pulls are on the inside of doors to avoid handles).

The front doors of Aldrich Hall
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

Back in Spangler for lunch I know just what to expect. There is, of course, a dizzying array of delicious options. If I change my mind, can I put back my Dragon Roll Sushi box and get that pork chimichanga? I keep the sushi, but trade in my Dr. Pepper for a flavored sparkling Bai closer to checkout. That seems ok. Lunch, again, is solitary. But my coworker is at a nearby table so we speak a bit more loudly than is perhaps polite and it almost feels normal. He got the chimichanga, and gave it five stars (out of five).

After lunch, we’re instructed to simulate smaller group meetings. As my colleagues are following the film crew, I’m on my own. I find a comfortable un-blocked seat in Spangler Lounge and sign in to the final Zoom session of the day: a wrap-up with the re-entry team, Dean Nitin Nohria, and Angela Crispi. Nitin expresses his excitement, and his gratitude, at having this day of testing things out and seeing colleagues. He is genuinely thrilled, and it’s infectious (the only good kind of infection right now). Angela weighs in with her own gratitude and delight at seeing everyone, and then Professor Rob Huckman, who is on the re-entry team, asks everyone for their feedback—what worked, what didn’t? The chat gets rolling, and Rob asks individual commenters to elaborate on certain topics, from the foot pulls on bathroom doors being difficult with summer sandals to new exit-only doors feeling confusing to requests for more hand sanitizer stations. He wraps up with a reminder to fill out the online survey—another critical feedback tool. This is new for everyone, and this pilot is a crucial piece of the puzzle in ensuring a safe and healthy campus.

As I head back to my car, exhausted but also exhilarated, I replay Nitin’s words from just a few minutes ago, “My heart is filled with gratitude for this amazing village that I am lucky to be a part of every day.” I agree. And, bonus, I have the most interesting stories to tell at dinner that night.

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