As the University welcomes back students, Resident Advisors are tasked with ensuring that students adhere to University guidelines in order to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19. However, with the University committing to an in-person semester, some RAs feel uncomfortable with current policies and the lack of agency given to them.
A letter from U.Va. Resident Staff circulated Aug. 28 demanding that Housing and Residence Life prioritize their public health and address concerns about racial equity. Demands include RA housing stability and whistleblower protections for staff to speak freely about HRL without retaliation from the organization. The letter also calls for HRL employees to receive $2,226.67 stipends and increased personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves.
One RA spoke with The Cavalier Daily on the condition of anonymity about HRL policies. Part of their frustration stems from the lack of communication between HRL and RAs. Despite having to move in two weeks earlier than residents in order to attend orientation training, RAs found out about their move-in delay at the same time as residents. Plans changed drastically as they had to adjust on short notice.
Some RAs are especially concerned about the balance between fulfilling their responsibilities as advisors and keeping themselves safe.
“We're employees of the University but we're being completely treated like commodities,” they said. “All that matters for them is having RAs here because they need us here, so they can have residents here so they can charge room and board.”
Second-year College student David Bass is returning to live in on-Grounds housing this fall and says he feels confident in his decision because he and his roommates will avoid risky actions by wearing masks and not attending gatherings with more than 15 people.
“I think that if everyone follows the University’s guidelines diligently, then yes [the policies] are enough to keep me safe,” Bass said. “Preventing COVID-19 is a very easy task if everyone follows directions.”
Like Bass, second-year College student Quinn Feeney said she feels safe living on Grounds during the semester. She plans to live in a bubble with her roommates to minimize contact with others to reduce her chances of contracting COVID-19.
As for HRL’s guidelines, Feeney wishes the University provided clearer details as to how the policies will be enforced. Ultimately, she realizes that the University is placing responsibility for prevention on its students.
One aspect of prevention may involve students like first-year College student Emma Mei, who said she is willing to report classmates who do not adhere to University policies of social distancing. Based on behaviors she’s observed on social media, she said she does not trust fellow members of the University community to prevent an outbreak.
Another factor that makes Mei wary of this semester is the University’s COVID tracker, which, as of Wednesday, shows 155 total cases in the University community — 117 of which are student cases. The rise in reported University cases make her afraid of catching the virus when more students come back to Grounds which would lead to her missing class time and school work.
Yet, despite her trepidations, she will live on Grounds this semester in order to focus on her academic work and receive some experience at the University, though she still does not feel safe returning.
“Honestly [U.Va.] seems more concerned about making sure the money that they've put into this prevention pays off,” Mei said. “They're not willing to back out now, even if it could be detrimental to student health. But at the same time, I feel like as a first year that I really do want to get that first-year experience.”
Another factor that makes Mei uncomfortable returning is the lack of information she has received about her housing situation. Despite her move-in date being days away, she has not received any contact from her RA and is still unclear about acceptable practices for dorm life. For instance, students are still unsure about whether friends from other dorms are allowed to visit, or who will supply the disinfectant wipes used to wipe down common spaces in the bathroom.
The University’s current guidelines include having 15 people or less at all gatherings, wearing face masks at all times — unless with roommates — and maintaining six feet of social distance. In residence halls, access to spaces will be limited to building residents and select staff only, overnight guests will not be permitted and only two visitors will be allowed to assist a student during move-in, according to University policy. Students who live on Grounds will also receive designated sink, stall and shower assignments.
The RA considers HRL’s policies to be impractical and unable to actually protect students, and also claims that HRL has provided contradictory information about safety protocols. For example, HRL staff supposedly informed RAs at a training session that gatherings could exceed the 15 person limit if all the attendees lived in the same dorm, then notified RAs later via email to say gatherings may never exceed 15 people.
The RA fears that instead of adjusting policies to learn from the faults of other universities — such as the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame — the University has only emphasized repercussions if policies were to be broken.
“These policies aren’t robust enough,” the source said. “People’s lives are at stake.”
They added that the lack of consistent information and impractical policies has led to low morale among RAs. Under current HRL guidelines, an RA will not know that a resident tests positive for COVID-19 unless the student tells the RA themself. The policies prize protecting personal privacy above general public health, according to the RA.
“I don’t feel safe,” the RA said. “There's nothing in place to keep us safe. You can follow all the guidelines, and I still don’t know if it’s effective. Plus, we don't actually have a way to properly enforce [policies]. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
University Spokesperson Brian Coy told The Cavalier Daily that the University aims to stop a potential virus outbreak by providing informational resources to returning students, such as guidance on isolation and quarantine. In addition to these resources, all returning students signed a pledge affirming that they will adhere to health guidelines both on and off Grounds. The University encourages students to take measures to protect themselves and their community.
Coy also added that the location of quarantine and isolation housing will not be disclosed in order to protect student privacy. He stated that the University expects the number of quarantine beds to fluctuate depending on the facilities available to house COVID-19 positive students.
“The University is working hard to make our return to Grounds as safe and successful as possible for our students, faculty, staff and Charlottesville neighbors,” Coy said.
HRL did not respond for comment.