A student sits at a table wearing a face mask and assembling face shields

Arthur Southern, a 2020 Clemson graduate with a master’s in architecture from Gaston, S.C., assembles face shields produced with 3D printers in Lee Hall.

Clemson University faculty and staff are using their expertise, creativity and the generosity of their community to prepare for the phased return to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic moved the University to modified operations. As one of the premier research universities in the nation, Clemson is fortunate to have resources and a tightly knit pool of experts to draw from as well as an army of people ready to jump to the aid of fellow Tigers at a moment’s notice.

Thanks to the foresight and leadership in the Clemson University Fire Department (CUFD), police department (CUPD) and health centers the University was a step ahead of most of the country to respond to a pandemic because of several recent training exercises.

“Part of the reason we were better prepared than most with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) inventory and action plans is because our first responders and health care workers went through a number of comprehensive health-crisis exercises,” said Tracy Arwood, associate vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer.

Four men stand in a room, one of them wearing a white full body suit, while another shows them an apparatus with a hose sticking out of it

Lt. Randal McJunkin (right) teaches fellow Clemson firefighter/EMT’s how to use a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) at the Clemson fire substation in Central.

“When Ebola was an issue in 2014, they went through a number of exercises to tabletop what an outbreak on campus might look like. We did it again with the measles threat in 2018 when it was projected there could be an outbreak in the Upstate. Those exercises put us in a better position to think about this pandemic and is the reason we had a decent amount of PPE to start with.”

Those supplies, coupled with PPE donated from the University community, enabled Clemson to make a smooth transition to the current modified operations without drawing on federal stockpiles. As the planning for a move back to campus revs up, an interdisciplinary cross-section of campus institutions is pitching in to set Clemson up for continued success.

At the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities (CAAH), a group of research professors, graduate students and 2020 graduates took 18 3D printers normally used to make scale models and repurposed them to make face shields. Led by Winifred Newman, director of the Clemson University Institute for Intelligent Materials, Systems and Environments (CU-iMSE), and Shan Sutherland, lecturer and manager of the Digital Design Studio and Materials Lab, the group set up five workspaces scattered far apart in the 55,000-square-foot Lee Hall to ensure social distancing and safety. The team produced 500 shields within a matter of weeks and plans to deliver 1,000 of the units to Clemson’s first responders. (A separate group called Clemson University Makerspace – made of undergraduate students in marketing, graphic communication, architecture and mechanical engineering – is contributing another 1,000 from their workspace in the Watt Family Innovation Center.)

A student wearing a face mask holds a stack of "U"-shaped face shield head bands in front of a row of three 3D printers

Mason Blackwell, a 2020 Clemson graduate with a master’s in architecture from Iva, S.C., separates a stack of face shield parts produced with the 3D printers next to him.

The FDA approved their design, and each shield is sanitized after assembly and sits for at least two days before being delivered.

“We’re one of the bigger makerspaces on campus, so this is a great way to put the space to use during this time,” said Sutherland. “Phoenix Textiles of Landrum, which is owned by Clemson alumni, donated 5,000 feet of elastic to us to make shields, and our students jumped right in to put it to good use.”

Sutherland said the four students and recent graduates working on the face shields are great examples of the Clemson Family.

“Don’t forget that when all this started, these students were in the middle of taking finals. If I know them, they were also helping other students finish the semester. Add researching and producing these face shields and doing all this while trying to figure out how to finish your graduate studies strong while being kind of hamstrung – they are the best of the best,” Sutherland said.

A student wearing a face mask and orange shirt stands at a table behind a row of face shield head bands

Kevin Crumley, an architecture graduate student from Greenville, poses with rows of face shield head bands.

Newman said the focus is to produce PPE safely, making sure to follow FDA guidelines and participate in a coordinated supply chain so the equipment goes where it is needed.

“As part of the land-grant mission to serve the larger state community we are only one small part of the system,” she said. “There are innumerable people at the University contributing their time and effort to supporting first responders and anyone else on the front lines of this pandemic.”

Back in Lee Hall, Arthur Southern and Mason Blackwell spend six hours a day in their workspaces making PPE parts for first responders, mere weeks after receiving their master’s degrees in architecture. Even though they are doing this instead of embarking on the first steps of their careers, both are grateful for the opportunity.

“I was not able to get a job elsewhere right now, so figured I might as well help out where I can,” said Southern. “Not everyone has this kind of ability or these machines, and there’s a shortage, so someone needs to help out. I don’t see this as stopping my life plan – it’s just a pause.”

It’s a selfless sentiment seen time and again among the Clemson community since the crisis began.

A man helps another man put on a white suit with hood and helmet while another man watches and points

Captain William Shiver (left) and Lt. Randal McJunkin (right) help fellow Clemson firefighter and EMT Ellis Roberts put on a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) at the Clemson fire substation in Central, S.C.

As soon as the word “pandemic” started seeping into the national lexicon, Arwood and a team from Occupational and Environmental Safety (OES) began reaching out to anyone on campus with a lab or shop to see if they would donate PPE they might not need during the modified operations. The response was immediate.

“We put the call out, and people were very generous,” said Arwood. “We collected all the things that people shared with us and put it into a central inventory that we have been providing to the Sullivan Health Center, Redfern Health Center, CUPD and the fire department as needed.”

As a state agency, Clemson works in concert with the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) and reports PPE burn rates to the agency on a daily basis. Counties and other state agencies do the same reporting so SCEMD can anticipate PPE needs and step in if there are supply shortages with a specific agency.

“We have not yet needed to request PPE from SCEMD, but we could,” said Arwood. “We’ve been fortunate. Between the supplies our first responders and medical providers had when this started, the donation inventory that our labs and shops around the state shared with us and the 3-D-printed face shields, we’ve not had to pull from the stockpile. There was a push for a little while at the beginning, but I think things have leveled off and our burn rate is very low right now. Fortunately, social distancing is working.”

A man wearing black gloves adjusts adjusts the hood of his white full body suit

Clemson firefighter and EMT Ellis Roberts tries on a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) at the Clemson fire substation in Central, S.C., May 21, 2020. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Many other steps are being taken in anticipation of a return to campus operations. Jim Grieger, Clemson’s executive director for occupational and environmental safety, is leading a group that’s assessing and preparing for students to be back on campus. This includes working with Clemson’s procurement office to explore options to acquire more than 50,000 cloth masks for every student, faculty and staff member. The team also ordered and received thousands of disposable KN95 cloth face coverings.

Clemson has purchased three ultraviolet light sanitizers to be placed on campus, with CUFD and Redfern. This ultraviolet light technology disinfects N95 masks for re-use. Also, five powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) that filter out contaminants in the air using a battery-operated blower have been secured for Clemson health care providers who treat the highest-risk patients.

“The overarching priority is the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and our community,” said Grieger. “Through the leadership of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) every Clemson department is heavily involved with planning, assessment and operational modifications to prepare for a safe and successful return in the fall. We will be prepared to protect our Clemson community and look forward to seeing our students again.”

These are just a few of the preparations happening across every school, college, office and division at Clemson to ensure a smooth and safe return to on-campus learning as soon as possible.

When asked what a typical day might look like once on-campus operations resume, Arwood shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

“There’s not really a typical day right now. But whatever it looks like, we’ll be ready.”

An EMT sits in the back of an ambulance wearing a white full-body suit and respirator

Clemson firefighter and EMT Ellis Roberts wears a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) in the back of an ambulance at the Clemson fire substation in Central.


Research at Clemson – the war on COVID-19

Clemson researchers have stepped up to the plate in response to COVID-19. Click the links below to learn more about Clemson’s coronavirus research: