June 11, 2020 by HCDE-Texas
The workplace window view from Facilities Executive Director Rich Vela’s office changes moment-by-moment as he travels from meetings to the 24 facilities his division manages for Harris County Department of Education. His Ford F-150 truck sees many miles and is privy to countless conference calls.
Like many HCDE employees, he and his 150 employees are teleworking during the pandemic. Many Facilities employees have offices on wheels.
Facilities Support Services supports HCDE by maintaining and improving campuses, offices and other learning and working environments. During the pandemic, the division is proactive and is an umbrella for many essential services: building maintenance, grounds upkeep, records management, custodial services, Choice Partners co-op services and coordinating the reopening of HCDE buildings and schools.
“The biggest challenge we face is that we’re living in unprecedented times,” Vela said. “We must work virtually, maintain social distancing, schedule essential services and keep everyone safe in the mix.”
As HCDE closed in March, his division maintained limited access to 6005 Westview and 6300 Irvington offices for essential services like mail and package intake, payroll and accounts payable services and human resources matters. Each time buildings are opened, they are cleaned and disinfected by custodial staff.
Because of immediate access to Choice Partners vendor products, HCDE didn’t experience as many product shortages like some organizations. COVID-19 product essentials purchased through the co-op range from paper products to cleaning supplies to hand sanitizers to disinfectant misting machines to face masks.
“As we see the pandemic easing up, the products are more readily available,” Vela said.
Facilities staff tries to be reactive and considerate to each request when employees require access to buildings. Teachers and students needed laptops. Directors and staff retrieved office essentials. Building doors are opened, disinfected and then closed again.
“Every director in my division—from Choice Partners to Maintenance to Construction to Records Management—I lean on,” he said. “Whatever is needed is what we are doing. We are always on call.”
At the onset, Head Start was proactive with the “Because We Care” food distribution which required multiple teams to help with purchasing, boxing and delivering the 1,000-plus care boxes over a three-month span.
“We had never done anything like that before,” Vela said. “It was logistically challenging—storing food, building boxes and communicating throughout the process.
“Yet everyone on my staff is willing to do what it takes to get the job done.”
Another significant change is moving to electronic billing and payment, he said.
“The whole business practice of continuity of operations has been challenging, but we have gotten better over the months,” Vela said.
The planned opening for the new Academic and Behavior School West also came in the middle of the pandemic. Furniture and fixtures arrived so staff was on hand for delivery and installation. Offices and classrooms were moved. Last minute phone calls come from contractors who need building access. Emergencies occur when burglar alarms go off in the middle of the night or a fire alarm malfunctions. Staff is usually onsite within 15 minutes, he says.
“No one has ever balked at any of it,” Vela said. “I couldn’t be more blessed than having the staff I have right now.”
Facilities is working with Human Resources and the Executive Team for the re-entry plan next month. That means retraining custodial staff in workplace safety practices for COVID-19. Employees will also get new directives in workplace safety.
“The weeks ahead will be labor intensive,” Vela said. “The weeks to come will be more hectic than they have been in the past, but we have been planning for this.