Recognizing hard work and dedication in York University’s 2020 COVID-19 Emergency Management Team

Featured illustration of the novel coronavirus
CDC image of the Coronavirus FEATURED image
Centre for Disease Control image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly impacted all aspects of daily life early last year, York University moved quickly to assemble an emergency team that would prove instrumental in its ability to respond to the crisis.

Samina Sami

Throughout the pandemic, the emergency team managed preparedness and response efforts. The Emergency Policy Group (EPG), led by the president and vice-presidents, oversaw strategic and policy decisions to safeguard the University community and ensure continuity of operations. In January 2020, a pan-University Emergency Management Team (EMT) was established under the leadership of Samina Sami, executive director of the Department of Community Safety.

York’s emergency team and efforts were in play before the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. “We were watching the progress of this virus closely from the outset and assessing the risks,” recalls Sami. “As the radius of transmission was broadening, I felt it was important to activate our emergency preparedness plan and team.” She credits York University’s President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton, Vice-President Finance and Administration Carol McAulay, and other senior leaders, for supporting the implementation of the EMT in January 2020, and for activating the University’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in early March 2020. “As a result of their decisions, York was able to seamlessly activate the remote Emergency Operations Centre to safeguard against the transmission of the virus,” says Sami.

As COVID-19 spread globally, the province declared a state of emergency on March 17, 2020 and announced the closure of non-essential workplaces the following week. Drawing on the expertise of the Academic Planning Table, chaired by Provost and Vice-President Lisa Philipps, the University was able to quickly pivot to remote learning and work, with members of the emergency team playing a significant role in these efforts to ensure the continuity of York’s academic mission.

“In the very beginning there was limited government information and the emergency team swiftly utilized public health best practices and principles to guide preparedness and response efforts,” recalls Helen Lee, York’s public health liaison lead.

Staff worked around the clock as they assumed their EOC roles in addition to regular responsibilities. As a succession of government and public health measures and guidelines came into effect, the team met regularly over evenings and weekends to plan and implement changes quickly for the community.

Overall, the team drew on expertise from academic planning and research, student affairs, York International, human resources, facilities services, safety and security, communications, administrative services, legal, health and safety, labour and government relations. It also called on the expertise of academic health experts, including Faculty of Health Dean Paul McDonald, Dr. James Orbinski, M.D., who is director of the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, and Professor Steven Hoffman, Dahdaleh Distinguished Chair and the director of the Global Strategy Lab, who gave generously of their time and knowledge to inform the emergency team’s efforts.

A Zoom screen capture of the last meeting of the 2020 Emergency Operations Team
A Zoom screen capture of the last meeting of York University’s 2020 Emergency Operations Team

Administrative staff worked continuously to ensure the University had the infrastructure in place to remain nimble in these response efforts. The communications team developed community-wide communications almost daily, under tight timelines while providing rapid French-language translation for every piece. The academic team also worked day and night to pivot to remote learning and support many faculty and students through this change. 

Supporting students and work from home efforts

Students in residence and international students required unique care and support as borders closed and travel was restricted. Public health guidelines and directives had to be implemented quickly and protocols put in place to mitigate the transmission of the virus, while all on-campus services had to be delivered in new and safer formats. Required services staff have played a critical role in supporting on-campus operations and services throughout the pandemic.

“The Office of Student Community Relations (OSCR) within Community Support and Services was instrumental in supporting students who were living in the community,” notes Debbie Hansen, operations lead on the EOC team. “Help with finances, housing, academic considerations, case/contact management and support with other needs was offered.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, one other big concern was ensuring that students who had been studying abroad could safely return home. With borders closing, and shelter-in-place orders rolling out in numerous countries, a team from York International and various Faculties worked to connect with all of these students to ensure their safe return as they completed studies.

Throughout the pandemic, a group of dedicated staff from the Division of Students, the Faculties and York International even developed and supported a quarantine plan, which was approved by both the provincial and federal governments. The plan involved having students quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, while meals and wellness supports were provided. To date, this team has supported more than 500 students who have travelled to Canada.

Locally, faculty, staff and instructors also needed help with the move to remote teaching and work. A Business Continuity Planning Table (BCP) became a source of advice for the EOC on COVID-19 related protocols such as return to work policies, equipment and furniture policies for home offices, among other financial matters. The executive officers from various faculties and divisions were instrumental in providing regular advice to the EOC members and supporting the development of EOC initiatives.

“Despite being under tremendous pressure, it was remarkable how fast everyone came together to manage the circumstances surrounding the pandemic and that is only a testament to everyone’s commitment and dedication to the University,” recalled BCP Chair and Lead Richard Ooi.

As everyone worked to support the University through such an unprecedented shift, they also weathered the impacts of the pandemic closer to home. As schools and daycares closed, many staff balanced work and caregiving responsibilities, some as single parents. “Some EOC team members experienced loss or had family members and friends who were directly impacted by COVID-19,” recalls Sami.

The emergency team knew that these challenges and the traumatic effects of the pandemic extended to the entire York community, including faculty, staff and students. As a result, the provision of mental health and wellness supports were prioritized at the onset and the team intentionally took an inclusive lens in its approach to serving York’s diverse community. Noting the importance of equity and inclusion, Sami says “we knew we had to do outreach and support our diverse, international community from the beginning.”

While not an exhaustive list, the individuals named below played an essential role on the University’s emergency team over the past year, as the EOC and the BCP table have now pivoted to a new COVID-19 Planning and Response Group. Many of the members cycled in and out of roles in order to sustain efforts over the course of year. Collectively, they made a significant and lasting contribution to the University’s COVID-19 emergency management response that they can be proud of.

EOC Section Leads (Teams A and B):

  • Samina Sami – Director, Emergency Operations Centre (EOC)
  • Vinitha Gengatharan – Planning Lead and International Subject Matter Expert
  • Richard Silva – Planning Lead
  • Mary Catherine Masciangelo – Planning Lead and HR Officer
  • Helen Lee – Public Health Liaison Lead and Subject Matter Expert
  • Humaira Pirooz – Health and Safety Officer and Subject Matter Expert
  • Teresa DuCroix – Health and Safety Officer and Subject Matter Expert
  • Alice Pitt – Academic Lead
  • Lyndon Martin – Academic Lead
  • Sarah Whitaker– Academic Lead
  • Richard Ooi – BCP/Academic Lead
  • Celia Haig-Brown – Research Lead
  • David J Phipps – Research Lead
  • Felix R. Moses – Research Lead
  • Debbie L. Hansen – Operations Lead
  • Brendan Schulz – Operations Lead
  • Anthony Barbisan – Operations Lead
  • Kelly Young – Operations/Logistics Lead
  • Aldo Altomare – Operations Lead, (Designate Director EOC)
  • Ross McMillan – Operations Lead
  • Yanni Dagonas – Communications Lead
  • Roderick Thornton – Communications Lead
  • Donna Cope – Communications Lead
  • Karen Traboulay – Communications Lead
  • Charles Frosst – Logistics Lead
  • Meagan Heath – Logistics Lead
  • Tom Watt – Logistics Lead
  • Stewart Evan Dankner – Logistics Lead
  • Patrick Banville – Glendon Lead
  • Marion Frankian – French Language Communications Lead
  • Susan Seaby – Policy Analysis /Project Management, (Designate Director EOC)
  • Leanne De Filippis – Legal Officer
  • Joanna S. Rainbow – Legal Officer
  • Donald Ipperciel – CIO
  • Aldo DiMarcantonio – Finance Lead
  • Ran Lewin – Finance Lead
  • Dan Bradshaw – Labour Relations Advisor
  • Shawna Teper – Government Relations
  • Neville McGuire – Liaison Officer
  • Graeme Stewart – Liaison Officer
  • Steve Matterson – Risk Management

EMT/EOC Academic subject matter experts:

  • Professor Paul W. McDonald
  • Dr. James Orbinski, M.D.
  • Professor Steven Hoffman 

EMT/EOC Administrative coordination & support:

  • Cameron Baguley – Administrative Coordinator
  • Maria Aurora Nunez – Policy Assistant/Scribe
  • Zina DiFranco – Scribe
  • Patricia A. Gagliardi-Ursua – Scribe
  • Maximilian Mackenzie Fantuz – Project Tracker
  • Peter Aylan-Parker – Administrative Coordinator/Scribe
  • Mike O’Brien – EOC Management

EOC members who provided subject matter expertise and/or were designates for other leads:

  • Isaac Garcia-Sitton
  • Lauri Green
  • Richard Piticco
  • Nick Valentino
  • Joseph Yun
  • Daryl Nauman
  • Aladin Alaily
  • Crista MacArthur
  • Ron Tapley
  • Pascal Robichaud
  • Olga Carew
  • Joseph Sanguedolce
  • Jan S. Oliver
  • Octavio Colantonio
  • Lawrence Ratchford
  • Dragan Spasojevic
  • Joanie Cameron Pritchett
  • Helen Psathas
  • Woo Kim
  • Donna Ptak
  • Darran Fernandez
  • Gary Brewer
  • Dexter King
  • Eric Mezin
  • Sue Bulof
  • Ramon Kagan
  • Karen Drysdale Chung
  • Aliya Ramji
  • Pam Persaud
  • Shirley Davidson Ashfield
  • Natacha Sam
  • Paul Campbell
  • Samara Barak
  • Amal Awini

Business Continuity Planning table members:

  • Richard Ooi – Lead/Chair
  • Aldo Altomare
  • Jennifer Ankrett
  • Patrick Banville
  • Anthony Barbisan
  • Paul Battistuzzi
  • Adam Bereza
  • Dan Bradshaw
  • Sarah Cantrell
  • Stewart Evan Danker
  • Shirley Davidson Ashfield
  • Aldo DiMarcantonio
  • Teresa DuCroix
  • Paul Elliott
  • Darran Fernandez
  • Chuck Frosst
  • Amy Gaukel
  • Vinitha Gengatharan
  • Debbie Hansen
  • Donald Ipperciel
  • Sarah Jordan
  • Helen Lee
  • Colette Leier
  • Phyllis Lepore Babcock
  • Ran Lewin
  • Mary Catherine Masciangelo
  • Alex Matos
  • Helen McLellan
  • Debbie Montanera-Bojda
  • Felix Moses
  • Anwar Mustapha
  • Diana Nuredini
  • Humaira Pirooz
  • Richard Piticco
  • Donna Ptak
  • Samina Sami
  • Richard Silva
  • Edward Secnik
  • Graeme Stewart
  • Darus Suharto
  • Jodi Tavares
  • Rod Thornton
  • Andrea Torre
  • Mario Verrilli
  • Mary Verrilli
  • Sarah Whitaker
  • Audrey Yee
  • Jessica Yeh
  • Meagan Heath
  • Helen Psathas

Business Continuity Plan table alternates or subject matter experts:

  • Diane Pestrin
  • Helen Zias
  • Sanish Samuel
  • Jillian Yeung Do
  • Aladin Alaily
  • Susan Seaby
  • Lauri Green
  • Jennifer Siphos
  • Donna Ptak
  • Brad Sheeller