Campus capacity severely limited with new retrofitting measures

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Media: Dylan Rossiter

One of the 200 plexiglass installs placed throughout high-traffic areas of Emerson's campus.

The rapidly approaching fall semester will see Emerson’s vertical downtown Boston campus drastically altered due to COVID-19 safety restrictions and new retrofitting designed to keep larger groups from confined spaces, like elevators and stairwells. 

Instead of students populating up to 20 floors of different buildings and cramming into elevators in their rush to classes, the campus will shift to a mostly horizontal layout. Meaning a significant portion of buildings’ upper floors will be all but abandoned, a college official confirmed.

“We tried to flatten the campus, so students can get to most of their classes on the first or second or third floor and we tried to keep the upper floors offline,” Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Duncan Pollock said in a phone interview. 

The Walker Building and Tufte Center, two of the most active buildings in a typical semester, will see their capacities slashed. The 10-story Walker Building will only have classes on floors two, three, four, five, and six.  

Pollock said that in a normal semester, the Walker Building would have 327 students on the second floor at 10 AM. But with new restrictions, the second floor will hold just 39 students in the same time frame. 

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The Paramount Center will seemingly be one of the busiest buildings in the fall, with classes spanning five floors and being held in 10 studios, one classroom, the Blackbox Theater, and the film screening room. The residential floors in the Center will function as the college’s designated quarantine space, meaning healthy students will take classes just one floor below where the infected and exposed will be housed. 

Pollock said the residence hall portion of the building is entirely separate from the space below and essentially a bubble. 

“The residential piece of the Paramount is basically a capsule unto itself,” he said. “It’s isolated from the rest of the Paramount in all respects. We’re not going to be using the main entrance unless you choose to do so… for students going to classrooms. [Students are] going to go through the paramount theater system”

A variety of larger, non-traditional spaces across campus will be utilized for classes including the Bill Bordy Theater, the Colonial Theater, the Paramount Theater, the newly renovated Cabaret in the Little Building, the Cutler Majestic Theater, the Black Box Theater, conference rooms in the W hotel, and three spaces in the 20 Park Plaza hotel. 

Students will be spread out in those spaces according to social distancing regulations. So a theater, like The Bordy, which typically holds 160 students, will be a 30 person classroom, Pollock said.

“We took our larger spaces on campus and off-campus and made them into what used to be the large classrooms and then we took the larger classrooms and made them into what used to be the smaller classrooms,” Pollock said in a phone interview. 

Emerson’s back to campus guide contains detailed floor plans of all available classroom space for the fall that include student traffic flow directors, capacity limits, and seating charts for each room. The floor plans indicate that at one time, with full utilization of all listed on and off-campus spaces, the college will be able to hold under 1,000 students at a time.

Space capacity is even further limited by goals to keep students from congested elevators, staircases, and hallways. That limited space in comparison to previous years means administrators have had to work strategically to stagger classes throughout each day and space. 

Another part of the de-densification strategy is employing the use of two “non-traditional” stairwells in the fall. The Ansin Building’s emergency staircase will be used for traffic descending floors, while the main staircase will only admit community members heading up the building. The second will be in the Little Building, where the main staircase will be designated for those going up and the back stairs will only be for those going down.  

A series of 200 plexiglass installs are another piece of the retrofitting puzzle that have been installed to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. Those installs have been placed in spaces where six feet of social distancing would be difficult to maintain, like guard stations at the entrance of buildings and the Equipment Distribution Center, Pollock said. 

“We identified everywhere there’s people within six feet of distancing that are going to be face to face and we put plexi up there,” he said. 

On-campus dining also changed to accommodate distancing with the DH offering limited in-person seating and all meals to-go. A number of other spaces have been converted into makeshift spaces for seating including the Lion’s Den, the Whiskey Saigon bar, the lobby of 2 Boylston Place, the bookstore textbook annex, and the third and fourth floors of the Paramount. 

The decision to have local restaurants, including those recently opened on campus, accept Board Bucks instead of EC Cash was an effort to lessen the number of students in on-campus dining spaces, Pollock said. EC Cash is money uploaded to student’s ID cards in addition to normal room and board costs, while Board Bucks are included in the standard meal plan.

Preparing classrooms has been a months-long process, Pollock said, as the college began retrofitting its campus in April. Crews have been working throughout the summer to flatten Emerson’s campus. 

Pollock said he didn’t know a cost estimate for the whole process.