Late night around Penn’s campus. A “neighborhood watch” with a specific aim: making sure everyone is following the university’s COVID-19 protocols, including at apartments just off campus.
“Hey, folks. … Get your masks on. ... I’ll be back next hour.”
A unique 2020 kind of thing, where up to a third of Penn’s 200 full-time athletic staffers, including coaches, took on COVID-related duties during the fall semester to avoid being furloughed amid deep budget cuts.
Kind of a win-win for the bottom line in the sense that the university needed to add these tasks, conducting contact tracing, and putting a person at the front desk at every building as a “public health ambassador,” making sure faculty and staff had done their own morning COVID surveys, getting a green checkmark to get into their own office.
Setting up a testing center, who better to run it than the facilities honchos in charge of Franklin Field and the Palestra? (No small task when that means staffers have the proper inventory and are fully protected.)
“There was an effort to match skill sets,” Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun said. “We had a number of our athletic trainers working in the call center. That was a great match.”
Penn isn’t competing in winter, after forgoing the fall and last spring’s sports. It’s still hoping for spring sports, but for all the reasons related to the pandemic, Penn’s athletic budget has been cut from $56 million to $46 million, Calhoun said, after a loss of $8 million in revenue and a $2 million cut in the subsidy from the university.
“We gave a lot of autonomy to head coaches,” Calhoun said. “They knew how much sport budgets were going to be cut. They had to help us come up with a creative plan to [alleviate] that.”
For football, head coach Ray Priore and his offensive and defensive coordinators kept to their jobs full time, Calhoun said, often picking up duties that would fall to other assistants who picked up a couple of these pandemic shifts per week.
“Because there was a high degree of participation, we had a way to divide the workload to make it work,” Calhoun said.
There also was a chance to double up, for coaches to work the front desk of a building while also, say, texting recruits.
“By far my most productive days,” said men’s basketball assistant Nat Graham, since working from home also meant new duties, with his children in virtual classes. Also, the opportunity for a little interaction, to meet people he’d otherwise rarely meet, that’s been a plus.
“Recruiting keeps going,” Calhoun said. “You can do these things in a very flexible way.”
“It was presented as ‘You might get furloughed. You might not,’ " said tight ends coach Ryan Becker, a former Penn quarterback himself. “But this was a way to help prevent that.”
Becker worked at the front desk at different facilities, and also at the facilities office itself. Twice, he worked at the COVID testing center, taking temperatures.
“It’s 10 to 15 hours a week, not too crazy intensive,” Becker said. “Usually three days a week, broken up. … You’re getting to meet a lot of different people.”
For men’s heavyweight rowing coach Bryan Volpenhein, the neighborhood watch was a fit since he felt like he wouldn’t lose family time working from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Two people would walk around together, Volpenhein said, “maybe a 15- or 20-minute loop. You look for people not wearing a mask. If you see large parties, you’re supposed to report them to Penn police.”
“At the very beginning, there were a handful,” Volpenhein said. “People outside, having a little get-together. In my imagination, it was far tamer than in past years.”
If someone who appeared to be a Penn student was walking outside without a mask, they’d mention it, asking if the person needed one.
“For the most part, people were pretty cooperative and polite,” Volpenhein said, and he considered it a plus that he could stop by and see some of his rowers.
“I think it was also good for them,” he said of rowers living off campus, in the sense that there wasn’t otherwise a chance for much interaction with a coach who just started last year. “The looks on their faces are worth every second spent.”
Since Penn students are going to be allowed to return to campus in January for the spring semester, this was just a fall staffing plan, although classes are scheduled to continue in a hybrid format, mostly online.
Big picture, Graham said, he got a better sense of what it takes to put together a budget, and what is missing from it in this pandemic year. Not just ticket sales and parking and concessions. Renting out the Palestra and Franklin Field, for instance.