With students living closely together in dorms, one important factor in minimizing the number of positive COVID-19 test results has been the enforcement of University policies, including mask-wearing, social distancing and group-gathering limits. Enforcement often falls to resident advisors, who have been on the front lines of the University’s efforts to limit positive cases of COVID-19 in on-Grounds residence halls.
Along with enforcing COVID-19 guidelines, RAs are responsible for all of the duties of a normal semester, such as helping first years make friends, adjust to college classes and find interests at the University. On top of that, they must deal with their own workload and mental health during this unique semester.
Although students have been on Grounds since move-in began Sept. 3, this semester has not looked normal. Most classes are online, students are required to limit group gatherings to 10 people and masks are required everywhere.
All three of the resident advisors interviewed for this article requested to stay anonymous to prevent any potential negative repercussions from Housing and Residence Life.
Mary* — a third year — is in her first year as an RA, and she says that enforcing University policies has been difficult.
“If I see people [gathering] in lounges, it's uncomfortable, but I have to ask them to separate,” Mary said. “If I see guests, I have to ask the guests to leave. Even with gatherings that I know are really innocent, it's hard. As awkward as it is, you have to step in and say something.”
Earlier in the semester, there were outbreaks in various first-year dorms, including Balz-Dobie, Lefevre, Echols, Kellogg and Hancock.
Throughout late August and September, the number of COVID-19 cases reported by the University COVID Tracker increased steadily, reaching a peak of 161 new positive cases between Sept. 16 and Sept. 18. In response, the University implemented new restrictions — decreasing the gathering size to five individuals, implementing stricter mask requirements and restricting all non-essential travel. The University announced Oct. 13 that it would begin testing on-Grounds residents once every nine days.
Another RA, Jack*, found that one of the difficulties he had with enforcement was after the reduction in gathering size from 15 people to five people.
“After the five person limit, a lot of people who used to hang out in groups of over five people were like, ‘It’s fine, no one will notice [if we continue to hang out in larger groups],’” Jack said. “And then RAs seem to have to kind of intervene and be like, ‘Hey, guys, you need to split into smaller groups.’ Especially hanging outdoors, they think that it's fine to not wear a mask.”
The gathering size has since been increased to 10 people, and the number of new daily positive cases steadily decreased from the end of September through early-November.
Sydney*, another RA, says that it has been tough to enforce the no-guest policy in dorms — first years are not allowed to be in any dorm but their own. Sydney explained that many of her residents and their friends got COVID-19 earlier in the semester, so they think that they can’t get it again and want to be able to visit each other in different dorms.
“It becomes a slippery slope because I think there's this [idea] where if you get COVID, you can't get it for another three months,” Sydney said. “So then people start using that as an excuse at times ... and then they bring people from other dorms.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that cases of COVID-19 reinfection have been reported but remain rare. As ongoing studies work to determine the nature of reinfection, the CDC recommends individuals practice social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing regardless of prior infection.
At the same time, Sydney said that her goal from the beginning has been keeping students on Grounds until winter break and keeping her residents safe.
“We're not here to be narcs or anything — we're truly here to help them,” Sydney said. “We're just trying to make sure that everybody's safe.”
One of the jobs of resident advisors is helping first years adjust to life in college and make friends. The nature of the semester means that RAs cannot hold hall meetings in person, which makes hosting events to help first years meet each other more difficult. However, Sydney said that she has found ways to get to know her residents. She plays basketball and tennis with some of her residents and finds time to chat with others in passing or at meals.
Sydney became an RA because her own resident advisor when she was a first-year student was so helpful and welcoming when she arrived at the University as an out-of-state student.
“I just wanted to be that person for other students who might be coming from out-of-state or even just in-state, fostering that inclusive and diverse community for everyone,” Sydney said.
Mary has tried to get to know her residents by holding office hours where her residents can drop by and chat with her. However, she says that the nature of the conversations has changed — while residents might have had questions about classes or making friends in previous semesters, she feels like their concerns this semester are about how overwhelmed they are.
“I don't know how to handle certain instances where students say, ‘I'm really sad and this whole semester doesn't make any sense to me,’” Mary said. “The best I can say is, ‘I understand what you're going through. I'm really sorry that you're feeling this way, can I refer you to CAPS?’ And that’s the extent of what I can do.”
Mental health has been a concern for many during the pandemic, with social distancing requirements and online instruction meaning that typical in-person social interactions aren’t possible right now.
Resident advisors may be the first resource first years turn to when in need of academic advice or when overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The thing about my job is that there's no beginning and end time,” Mary said. “It's not like a 9-to-5 job, you're on the job 24/7 … Even if I'm really tired, I have an obligation to be there for them, especially because like their parents might not be or they may not have access to their advisor right then.”
Sydney expressed similar concerns about helping her residents and dealing with her own mental health.
“As far as how professors have dealt with COVID and switched to the online formatting, they haven't really accommodated students’ mental health,” Sydney said. “I feel like at least for me the workload now is the same as it would have been in a regular semester.”
The University recently announced its academic schedule for the spring 2021 semester — which includes delaying the start of classes until Feb. 1 and replacing spring break with “mental health days” throughout the semester. The spring will look similar to this semester, with a mixture of online and in-person classes and a credit/general credit/no credit grading option.
When asked what he was hoping for going into next semester, Jack replied that he hoped students would comply with University COVID-19 guidelines.
“I'm also hoping people would be better adapted to the virtual lifestyle by [then] and start using more of the virtual means to hang out and communicate instead of in person means to decrease the risk of contracting COVID,” Jack said.
Sydney expressed that one concern she had going into next semester was helping first years who stayed at home during fall semester adjust to life on Grounds if they decide to come to Charlottesville in the spring.
Back in August, resident advisors submitted a petition to Housing and Residence Life. The petition requested that their meal plan be expanded given that they can’t use the common kitchens because of the pandemic, that they be given adequate personal protective equipment and that they receive financial compensation or hazard pay. The University has not formally responded to these demands.
Jack said that although he understands that hazard pay for all RAs might be unrealistic, he hoped for an increased meal plan and plus dollar options.
Another challenge that he has is being able to stay in contact with friends. RAs are also not allowed to bring guests into their rooms, but Jack wishes that there were spaces dedicated to RAs where they could safely gather with a friend or RAs from other buildings.
“If RAs were able to have their own communal spaces or privileges where they can bring in one or two other RAs from other buildings, that would have been really accommodating,” Jack said.
When asked what she needed from the University community right now, Mary replied that she needed support.
“It would really help if everyone checked in on their friends, and really checked in with them, like made sure that they're doing well physically, emotionally, mentally,” Mary said. “If everyone chips in and checks on each other, it'd be less of a burden on [residential] staff.”