Our Union Is Open: A Q&A with Texas A&M University-Commerce’s Michael McKean

Many student unions have gone completely virtual since COVID-19 has hit the United States. However, one particular student union has remained open with limited operations: the Rayburn Student Center at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Michael McKean, Associate Director at the center, has been working full-time to keep the building running for food services, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning measures and more. In a Q&A with The Bulletin, McKean gave us a look into his workflow and how Rayburn Student Center now operates and services students.Michael McKean

What's your role with the Rayburn Student Center? What's your day-to-day like?

I'm the Associate Director and I deal with the building’s facilities and operations, including the maintenance and upkeep of the building. I work closely with the custodial staff and oversee operations to make sure things like furniture are in good working order and that we have enough equipment. I am also involved in what we call “passive programming,” which is non-events programming for students.

 What does that programming look like?

Prior to COVID-19, we had activities such as letter writing workshops where we gathered supplies and taught students how to write letters and send them to friends and family. We had other activities like making Valentine's Day cards and celebrating Texas Independence Day with a photobooth and recreating the Texas flag.

Rayburn Student Center is still open at limited capacity. Could you explain how operations have been impacted since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Once Texas declared a state of emergency back in March, we reorganized our full-time staff to only include the center director, two members of our operations team and myself. We did this because we’re the only source of food on campus—we have the cafeteria as well as the food courts in the building. We did initially limit dining to groups of 10 and about a 500-square foot area. When advice changed from the Texas governor's office, we changed over to a to-go model.

Currently we have student employees managing our information desk. Depending on the time of day, there's either one or two students in the building and our full-time staff goes in as needed. We’re serving about 250 students currently living on campus altogether. All our auxiliary offices are shuttered and currently our food services and our bookstore are available.

How has the RSC handled social distancing, cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation measures?

We hired on an additional custodial crew whose only function is sanitizing door knobs, solid surfaces, bathrooms and other surfaces. They work in 30-minute rounds around the building, and it has been really successful. But, it's much easier now that some of the offices are shuttered.

Our food service provider has also been taking care of their own sanitation. They require anyone who enters the food courts to use hand sanitizer and they have set up social distancing markers that are six feet apart. The cashiers also sanitize the checkout station after each transaction.

Otherwise, we have our regular custodian crew as well, and they’re focusing on deep cleaning throughout the building.

Could you detail what type of virtual activities and services Rayburn has been offering?

There's been contests organized on our social media platforms. These include things like trivia, “show your spirit” contests or “create the best social media post” contests. We also have downloadable, stress-relieving coloring pages and links for virtual tours.

At this point we are working on virtual activities for the fall. We’ll actually be doing our traditional welcome week activities virtually.

What plans does the center have for its eventual reopening?

We’re in the planning stages at this point. We have no plans to hold any large-scale events upon reopening in the (summer[1] ) fall and we are planning on limiting events to 25% capacity of any event space. For example, our largest space normally accommodates about 480 people in a lecture style. That would be brought down to well under 100 people with social distancing rules. But all our plans depend on guidance from our university executive team. If they find that 25% capacity is not being effective, then we will change our plans.

How has your day-to-day work been impacted?

Managing the physical building has been difficult. We just happened to be in the middle of plans for changing our former game room over into a large food service area to meet on-campus needs. I’ve been managing that project, so meeting with new vendors for planning and deciding which equipment to keep or remove from the space. But at this point, I'm not sure where the project stands with campus eventually reopening.

Other than that, I have adapted my workflow to working with our student employees. We've actually kept on all of our student workforce in a limited capacity. We're working with them virtually and make social media posts, create best-practice documents, that sort of thing. I've been meeting virtually with students and providing guidance.

How has the overall RSC staff adapted to working during this time?

Our building managers are still opening and closing the building and their stations at the information desk. We’re actually able to hold student government elections virtually. We were able to hire a programming student staff virtually for the fall and get them trained. I think we've been able to be creative with our time and work on some projects that we don't necessarily have time for during the regular school year.

Our full-time staff has a weekly staff meeting virtually. That’s been really good for morale because most of us haven't seen each other in about two months now.

What have been your biggest takeaways from this entire experience? Namely, what challenges have you faced and how have you successfully overcome those challenges?

I think our biggest takeaway is that we need to support our student staff no matter what. Our biggest strength has been in our staff’s indicative to keep engaged with students. We’ve also been able to use meeting time more effectively. I feel like we've done a much better job using this time effectively and making decisions as a team and focusing on training and getting back to where we need to be in August.
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