Health

'This Isn’t What I Signed Up For': RAs on the Huge Burden of Student Health

Being a residential advisor means taking on extra responsibilities. But in the time of COVID-19, schools are asking RAs to do work that’s way above their pay grade.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
August 21, 2020, 12:00pm
College move-in with residential advisor RA first day of college
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Breaking up dorm-room parties, comforting homesick freshmen, decorating bulletin boards: these are the standard duties a college residential advisor agrees to take on when they sign their contract and assume responsibility for upholding the institutional rules in a given residential building for a school year. But this fall, some RAs are being asked to go above and way beyond the typical expectations for their role, thanks to the fact that many colleges and universities are reopening their residence halls in spite of the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic gripping the country. These student employees are approaching the new school year with trepidation. 

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(In order to ensure the student employees who spoke to VICE for this story did not endanger their jobs, all names have been changed, and no schools will be specified.) 

To call the situation on college campuses volatile is an understatement. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill canceled its in-person classes on August 17, just a week after the school year started; Michigan State University announced its first semester would be fully remote on August 18, a week before students would have returned to its campus. Schools around the country, from Mississippi to Washington state, have been reporting outbreaks related to Greek life on and off campus since late June.

According to Michael*, a 19-year-old RA who has spent three weeks with his residents, COVID-19 protocol enforcement is easier than it sounds—especially on a large, state school campus with more than 25,000 undergraduate students. 

Michael told VICE he and his fellow RAs haven’t received any specialized COVID-19 training, though it’s “come down through the ranks” that they’re in charge of monitoring their residents’ compliance with school policy. But in practice, he said students don’t tend to take his authority seriously when it comes to COVID-19. Students regularly play football and spikeball unmasked in front of his residence hall, but Michael said any attempts to get them to mask up are dismissed outright. “They just look at me, and they're like, who the fuck are you? What are you doing here? You have no jurisdiction!” 

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And within the bounds of his residence hall, things aren’t much better. “Even when I'm in my dorm, when I tell someone [to wear a mask], I'm supposed to take their student ID and write down their name if they refuse,” he said. “I'm like hey, it's school policy, and they're not cooperating, so I'm like hey, can I get your student ID and they're just like, ‘No…’ and walk away. Like, what the hell am I supposed to do?”

But Michael said his biggest concerns revolve around what to actually do if (or, when) a resident approaches him and says they think they’ve contracted COVID-19, a situation which he says his school has yet to officially address. “I think I'm supposed to be like, uh, go get tested, or you need to self-quarantine… But I don't know.”

Dana*, 19, told VICE in the midst of all the chaos, she’s been fielding calls from anxious parents, brimming with questions about safety standards. “It’s a constant reassurance that our custodial staff is sanitizing high-touch areas,” she said. “And [I also tell them it’s about] your child personally taking care of themselves.”

Jackson*, 20, is going into his first year as an RA at a private university with around 1,500 undergraduate students, and he’ll be living in a freshman dorm. “I feel slightly uncomfortable going back,” he told VICE, and said he feels wary of taking the health of peers so close to his own age into his hands. “I'm fine doing what has to be done, but I hope it doesn't have to cost me my life/well-being.”

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Dana said she feels less concerned about controlling her residents, though she spoke to VICE two days before she was set to return to campus. “I have dealt with high-risk situations before, and I don't mind taking care of things that come my way,” she said, referring to an incident at a daycare center she worked at one summer, where she handled a combination lice-flu outbreak. She said she felt her school, a public research university with around 14,000 students, adequately prepared their RAs for tackling COVID-19. 

“We are currently going through hours of training on Zoom or Microsoft Teams with powerpoints, etcetera,” she said. While a lot of the training is standard RA fare, she said her school is also “telling us that we need to do things at a distance, to start checking on our residents more since a lot of us are taking on first-year residents, and [taking steps to make] sure they are mentally OK during these trying times.” 

She also said she and her fellow RAs have been instructed to “encourage” students to wear masks indoors, and to abide by the school’s guest policy: one person at a time, fellow students at the school only.

In terms of COVID-19 preparedness, Jackson said his school is providing him with three cloth face masks for personal use, but will be leaning on him to enforce regulations among his residents—and to bring his own cleaning supplies. Though he spoke to VICE before returning to campus, he said he expects his heightened responsibilities include making sure residents wear their masks and maintaining hygiene in the bathrooms and common areas.

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Though Jackson applied to be a RA in May, after heading home for the school year in March, COVID-19 wasn’t even a blip on the horizon when Dana and Michael applied to be RAs; the former said she began her application process in January, while the latter said he started applying for the position in November 2019.  “I swear to God, this isn’t what I signed up for,” Michael said. “I signed up to do a regular RA thing, and now I have all these extra responsibilities on me that I'm not getting compensated for.” 

In fact, Michael said dozens of RAs on his campus felt the same way, and ended up sending a letter to university officials to express their discomfort. VICE obtained a copy of the letter, which lists concerns like poor communication of COVID-19 prevention policies; little support from other housing staffers for their attempts to enforce mask-wearing; campus housing policies that vary on a residency hall by residency hall basis; and, again, the lack of official protocol for when a resident believes they’ve contracted COVID-19. 

“A crisis like COVID-19 tends to reveal one’s true nature, and thus far the university, including university housing, has shown a prioritization of profit over the wellbeing and concerns of its students and staff,” the letter said. According to Michael, it had around 70 RA signees. 

Many schools are attempting to keep their student employees in check and away from reporters. A handful of RAs declined VICE’s request for comment because doing so could endanger their employment; one was contractually forbidden from talking to the press, while a few more asked their supervisors and were told they were not allowed to speak on behalf of their institutions. Others were willing to talk, but their schools closed their residence halls before they even had the chance to return.

Even the RAs who spoke to VICE aren’t optimistic about their chances of spending an entire semester, let alone a full school year, on campus. “Honestly, if we get sent home, I'm just gonna go home,” Michael said. “It is what it is. I'm not gonna sit here and beg to stay.”

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