As colleges allow more students to live on campuses again, staff who keep dorms running say their jobs carry more responsibilities – and new risks.
In addition to hosting virtual floor events and mediating conflicts, resident assistants, community directors and other residential staff say they’re counseling students thinking about suicide or struggling with homesickness. In many cases, they’re also enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing and escorting their sick peers to quarantine housing.
While schools have made some modifications – assigning students to single bedrooms, requiring negative coronavirus tests before move-in and issuing masks and other protective gear to staff – some campus housing staff are pushing to make sure they’re vaccinated alongside other essential workers.
“When we think of front-line workers, we think of housekeepers, maintenance workers, dining staff,” said Valronica Scales, director of resident life at the University of Maryland at College Park. “Oftentimes, those that are forgotten are RAs. A lot of them have said, ‘We’re concerned about our own safety.’ “
Stephanie Jamanca, a senior residence life coordinator at the University of South Florida, said she spends the week enforcing policies in her dorm and finding ways to educate students about the risks of the coronavirus.
But as the weekend approaches, she said, groups of maskless students can be seen leaving the residence hall “dressed like they’re going out.”
“That’s the part that just feels a little bit like a dagger to the heart,” she said. Residential staff on the campus in Tampa are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
While the majority of students abide by the rules, it can take only one positive case to spark an outbreak. Most clusters have been tied to large and small gatherings – where students were unmasked and in close contact with each other – in bars and on- and off-campus housing, according to the American College Health Association.
This reality puts staff in dorms at risk, particularly as universities expand their campuses to house more students, staff said.
U-Md. is housing 4,600 students this semester, Scales said, roughly 1,000 more than last semester. Both Georgetown and George Washington universities invited more students to live on campus amid pressure from parents and students.
There is also a financial component: Universities depend on student housing fees, and revenue has dropped since the onset of the pandemic.
But dorms cannot reopen without staff, said Mary DeNiro, chief executive of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International. The group represents employees who live and work inside residence halls.
DeNiro recently sent a letter to governors, urging them to prioritize residence hall staff in their vaccination efforts.
“The job is more stressful than it’s ever been. Our live-in staff are the first responders,” DeNiro said in an interview. “They are living in a situation where they are interacting with students on a daily basis.”
DeNiro said state leaders have showed a “genuine interest” in her request. But amid vaccine shortages and scheduling issues, many jurisdictions are struggling to successfully implement their distribution plans.
The University System of Maryland, which oversees the College Park campus and 11 other higher education institutions, shared news in January that employees who regularly work on campuses, including some faculty, could receive the vaccine alongside other essential workers.
But employees have been slow to receive their doses. Scales said she is on three separate waiting lists for the vaccine.
The university does not yet have its own supply of vaccine doses, so leaders are encouraging students and employees to find other opportunities to get inoculated, U-Md. President Darryll Pines wrote in a recent letter to campus. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently bemoaned a shortage; many eligible residents cannot receive the vaccine because the doses do not exist, Hogan said at a news conference.
Lynn Goldman, dean of GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, echoed those concerns about that campus’s vaccine clinic.
“The supply of the vaccines is just a trickle right now,” Goldman said. “We have a lot more demand than we have supply.”
The country’s vaccine distribution plan is complicated by a patchwork of different approaches, Goldman said.
The District of Columbia has prioritized groups in congregate living settings – such as correctional centers and immediate care facilities – but the distinction does not include residence halls, whose occupants “are not at increased risk for morbidity and mortality as defined by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” according to the city’s health department.
The situation is different in some areas.
In Nevada, resident and community assistants at the state’s flagship university in Reno have started receiving their vaccine doses, said Kerri Garcia Hendricks, a spokeswoman for the campus.
After the state deemed some campus workers as essential, more than 2,100 employees at the University of Nevada at Reno – including resident assistants, maintenance workers and other staff who come in close contact with others – became eligible to receive the vaccine.
Watching her peers in other states get vaccinated “can be a little frustrating,” Scales said, adding that her staff are “finding people who are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a lobby, some with masks on, some with no masks on.”
There is a lot of fear, she said.
“My team is definitely part of the front lines and should be vaccinated as soon as they can be.”