DDS converts Sarner Underground into isolation meal pick-up center

The pick-up service, which began on Jan. 5, provides buffet-style meals for students who have tested positive for COVID-19.

by Taylor Haber | 1/20/22 5:10am

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by Hannah Li / The Dartmouth Staff

Dartmouth Dining Services has converted the all-purpose student space and event hall, Sarner Underground, into an isolation meal pick-up center for students who have tested positive for COVID-19. Students getting their meals at Sarner swipe themselves in with their Dartmouth ID cards, while dining staffers – adorned in N95 masks and standing behind a plastic glass barrier — serve patrons one at a time. 

DDS director Jon Plodzik explained that Sarner Underground is the most recent iteration of the College’s isolation dining program, one which has continued to evolve as the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed. 

Plodzik said that in the fall, students who tested positive for COVID-19 would receive meal plan instructions alongside their isolation protocol from Dick’s House. The pick-up model for last term had students order online before picking up meals from a side door at the Class of 1953 Commons, DDS general manager Jennifer Nakhla said.

Plodzik added that DDS updated their previous isolation dining system – in which students ordered meals online through a meal-planning system and picked them up at a side door of the Class of 1953 Commons  – under the advice of the College’s COVID-19 response team. He cited the need for a “separate facility” that would be able to handle a COVID-19 surge due to the omicron variant. On busier days, he added, Sarner serves approximately 130 to 140 students and has the capacity to serve 400 students per day.

“Sarner’s critical for those two reasons,” Plodzik said. “One, community safety. And two, joy for the folks who are perhaps not joyous every day because they’re in isolation and quarantine.”  

According to Plodzik, employees who serve at Sarner do so on a voluntary basis. Nakhla, who  has served at Sarner herself this term, said the estimated 15% to 20% of DDS staff who have opted to do so understand the risks but recognize the work as invaluable to the student body. 

“I think it speaks a lot to the campus community and the willingness of everyone to pitch in,” she said. “It’s been apparent throughout the whole pandemic. Folks have stepped up in all sorts of ways.”

Plodzik explained that the two dozen DDS employees who have gone through the requisite medical screening to work at Sarner, however, are not enough on their own to operate Sarner for eight hours every day. He said that DDS has had to rely on staff from other campus offices who elect to pick up a shift at Sarner and supplement DDS staff.  

“Without these extra, wonderful volunteers, I don’t know how we would make it all happen some days,” Plodzik said.

Shane Brightly, who has worked for residential operations since 2002, began picking up shifts with DDS last term as a cook — he had been a chef with DDS 15 years ago before changing positions. 

Brightly said he believed the risk he would be putting himself at in Sarner could be no worse than the germs he was already being exposed to cleaning restrooms designated for students who had tested positive COVID-19.  

“For me, it’s just another shift,” Brightly said. “I’m there to help the kids, you know?” 

Brightly, a self-proclaimed “workaholic,” said he has worked eight-hour shifts at Sarner every Saturday and Sunday this term, a schedule he attributes to his willingness to help out whenever needed. Despite the potential for contracting COVID-19, Brightly said that one of his top priorities is ensuring students have a positive experience at school. 

“I want to help you [students] and take care of you as best as I can,” he added.

Though Nakhla noted the drawbacks of working in a high-risk infection area, she said that one of the benefits of serving at Sarner is being able to engage with and cheer up isolated students who have almost no interaction with others on campus.

“We try to make it a pleasant experience for them – we try to make it fun,” she said. 

Some students who have gotten meals from Sarner shared their gratitude for employees’ efforts to make their isolation periods a more enjoyable experience.

Nina Prakash ’25 said picking up her meal and being told by the staff at Sarner that they hoped she was feeling well “made [her] day” during isolation. 

Raselas Dessalegn ’24 said that he also enjoyed positive interactions with employees at Sarner and was “pleasantly surprised” by the meal options available to isolating students. He added that he applauds Sarner staff for putting their own health at risk to serve students. 

“I think it’s pretty brave –  just because nobody really wants to get COVID – and they’re obviously putting themselves out there, which I appreciate a lot,” he said. 

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