Hillman Hall’s Flexibility Key To Brown School Reopening During Pandemic

Public Health; Social Work; Students

When Thomas and Jennifer Hillman Hall was dedicated on Oct. 2, 2015, it was hailed as a roomy addition to the Brown School, a welcoming place designed to encourage in-person collaboration and shared learning. Now, as the school prepares to celebrate the building’s 5th anniversary, the roominess of its 105,000 square feet is being appreciated more than could have been imagined.

The welcoming and in-person sharing, not so much.

“It’s ‘Come in and take advantage of in-person learning, but follow our science-based public health safety protocol,’” said Mary McKay, Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School.

The difference, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended higher education around the nation and posed vexing dilemmas for university administrators who want to offer in-person learning options, while minimizing the risk of exposure for students, faculty and staff. The good news is that Hillman Hall and its wide-open spaces have provided the Brown School with the distancing resources and flexibility that have been key to its resumption of select in-person classes that began Aug. 24.

“We cannot imagine navigating the pandemic without the resource of Hillman Hall,” McKay said. “We have this beautiful building that was designed with flexibility in mind, more than our other buildings. Just having that much more space helps us distance ourselves from one another. That’s the silver lining.”

For those returning to Hillman for the first time since the coronavirus hit, the biggest change they’ll see is in the Maxine Clark and Bob Fox Forum, the building’s large and airy focal point on the first floor that features a woodwork ceiling and a glass façade. Created as a premier event space for conferences, lectures and town hall meetings, the Forum has been considered the figurative front porch of the Brown School. Now it has been transformed into a classroom, configured to maintain a safe six feet between students. Grounds for Change, the café adjacent to the Forum, is temporarily closed, with a possible reopening offering a ‘grab n’ go’ selection in the future.

“All of the features that made Hillman a collaborative and social place are detriments in this pandemic,” said Amy Eyler, associate professor and co-director of the Hillman-based Prevention Research Center who led a study of how the building as designed contributed to the well-being of those there. “I am now teaching two in-person classes and there is a whole new meaning of healthy building!”

Figuring out how to resume classes safely and fitting the logistical puzzle pieces together was the job of a large team of faculty and staff, led by committed preparedness, public health safety and administrative leadership teams. Siomari Collazo-Colon, Associate Dean of Administration notes, “We are incredibly fortunate to have some of the best public health faculty in the country. This has allowed us to put science at the forefront of every decision.”

“I was nervous at first but it’s going very well,” said team member Sunghei Han, MSW ’03, the Brown School’s manager of operations. “We’ve all been working to make this happen and we’re very confident that the protocol developed by Brown School public health experts would serve us well.”

When they sat down to plot out classroom floor plans, they quickly realized that many of the school’s classrooms were too small to accommodate six-foot distancing of students. Hence the use of the Clark-Fox Forum (and the Brown Lounge), to host classes too. Also, It was necessary to limit occupancy of the restrooms, which are now restricted to one person at a time and gender-neutral. The academic affairs team worked closely with faculty to decide which of the school’s 200 courses would be taught in person, when, and where. “It was lots of work and a tremendous collaboration,” she said. “It’s all the Brown School community doing it together. It’s been a great honor and a good experience and I’ve learned a lot.”

The building was made possible by the generous donations of Thomas and Jennifer Hillman. Jennifer Hillman was recently announced as a 2020 Woman of Achievement, and Thomas Hillman is president of the school’s National Council. Both have been in close touch with McKay about the changes in the building. “They’re glad about the flexibility and they trust us to make the right decisions,” McKay said. “They’re very practical people and we are lucky to have such Brown School champions.”

Commitment to applying best practices was shared across the school, faculty and staff as it wrestled with the challenges of resuming the in-person learning experience while keeping in mind one of the overarching goals that Hillman Hall was designed to further: the health and well-being of the people who use it.

“We’re protecting lives,” Han said.