In the dorms and in the dark: a semester of uncertainty for students in residence halls
Last fall, residents and CAs grappled with what they said was a lack of communication and worries about whether they were safe. Now, they wonder what the rest of spring semester holds.
March 24, 2021
In the shadow of COVID-19, the fall 2020 semester at the University of Minnesota left many students in residence halls feeling in the dark, and often what they did not know about COVID-19 could be more unsettling than what they did.
Residents were unsure of how many positive cases were in their buildings, and community advisers (CAs), typically responsible for nurturing student growth and upholding residential policy, were suddenly tasked with protecting their residents from COVID-19 — which in turn may have put their own health at risk at times.
In response to the pandemic, the University released the Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan in September 2020 to control any spread in residence halls and on campus.
From the beginning of August through March 13, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that there have been 315 positive cases among students living on the University campus, though that count may not be indicative of the total number of cases.
Despite preparations, students in residence halls have struggled with what several said was a lack of adequate communication from Housing and Residential Life (HRL), while CAs found themselves pushing for better personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay in a position previously unpaid.
“[Fall] semester has definitely been like no other. If I had to encapsulate it in one word I would honestly say ‘frustrating,’” Emily*, a CA, said. Emily, along with others interviewed, asked to remain unnamed due to their ongoing employment status. All have been given pseudonyms to avoid confusion and to protect their jobs.
Overwhelming responsibility for CAs
For CAs, the virus has meant a far heavier responsibility than in past years, and the burden of overseeing COVID-19 enforcement in residence halls largely resulted in exhaustion. Xavier*, another CA, said there is a very clear sense of fatigue among CAs, and it is “not really what any of [them] signed up for,” but many of them depend on the position for the full board, meal plan and a way to reduce their debt.
Xavier said though working generally felt safe, confronting incidents in residence halls can feel particularly daunting as CAs may be risking their own health.
“When I have to knock on the door, and I don’t know what’s on the other side of this, and you don’t know if they’re going to put on a mask when they open the door … our job is to stop groups like that,” Xavier said.
Susan Stubblefield, the interim director of HRL, said the department does not want CAs to risk their health.
“I think all along we have absolutely said if [CAs] find themselves in a situation where they’re addressing something, and the other person isn’t maintaining distance or the person doesn’t have a mask on, that we do not want them to risk their individual health to try to address an enforcement situation,” Stubblefield said.
While CAs said it is true they have been given the option to remove themselves from situations that may threaten their health, they said it can be difficult to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and feeling obligated to take action.
“I do feel like CAs have been given the space to not confront situations if we do not feel comfortable, however, I do not know many CAs that actively choose not to enforce guidelines, as it really only encourages residents to continue to not follow COVID-19 protocols,” Emily said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.
The alternatives to not intervening do not necessarily feel any better, Xavier said. CAs can report the violation to a professional HRL staff member, who can have a conversation with the residents — but Xavier said it is unclear how the issue is addressed from there.
Xavier said there were some residents during the fall semester whom CAs wrote up multiple times and felt “should have left a long time ago” or experienced more discipline. While professional HRL staff members have conversations with those residents, Xavier said reporting it “feels like nothing” because the conversations do not seem to lead anywhere.
The other alternative is to call the University of Minnesota Police Department, which Xavier said can make some CAs feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
In addition to confronting room capacity violations and students not wearing masks, some CAs also helped residents on their floor find isolation rooms and brought quarantined residents their daily meals, though this is not required of CAs.
The rollout of the original Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan also took place after CAs were already hired for the 2020-21 year, according to Stubblefield, which she said complicated the roles of CAs.
Focus on mental health also declined, said Jen*, a third CA. Despite the University’s aim to prioritize mental health and wellbeing, Jen said that there was a common theme of anxiety and loneliness in dorms after completing multiple mental health check-ins with residents.
“In terms of crisis prevention and wellness check-ins, it’s just, it’s shocking. I have worked with freshmen before … but this is different,” Jen said.
Hundreds of violations
The University ended fall semester in phase three of the first Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan. At that time, students had “full access to campus and the surrounding community” and had to return to their residence halls by midnight, though the majority of residents left the dorms after in-person classes concluded at the end of November.
Now, midway through the spring semester, HRL is once again in the third phase of the four-step Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan 2.0., which means residents are asked to be back inside their residence halls by midnight but are allowed “full access to campus and the surrounding community.”
Students moved back into the residence halls for spring semester in January, with approximately 425 new students moving in, Stubblefield said in an email. But, factoring in the number of students who canceled their housing contracts after the fall, there are around 170 fewer students than last semester.
From Sep. 16 to Dec. 4, 744 Maroon and Gold Sunrise violations were reported on the Twin Cities campus, according to data obtained from the University. Door monitors reported an additional 370 violations of “back home” hours, though fall semester door monitoring ended Nov. 25, when the majority of residence hall contracts ended for the semester. Nine housing contracts during fall semester were terminated as of Dec. 4. These violations are for the around 3,098 students who lived in on-campus dorms during fall semester.
There have been 361 Maroon and Gold Sunrise violations, including violations of face covering, exceeding guest allowance or physical distancing requirements, and 82 violations of “back home” hours — reported from Jan. 15 through Feb. 22, according to data obtained from the University. These usually drew written warnings; the University terminated three housing contracts during this period.
These numbers include repeat violations. Students who violated expectations twice must meet with a HRL staff member. That staff member can give the student a final warning. Two violations, however, are enough to result in a housing contract termination.
The number of Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan violations varied widely across residence halls during fall semester. Territorial Hall and Pioneer Hall topped the list for face covering, guest limit and physical distancing violations at 205 and 192, respectively, but both were among the halls with the most residents. So was Frontier Hall, with close to 500 residents; Frontier Hall had 71 reported violations. However, violations do not equal positive COVID-19 cases.
Similar to the fall semester, Territorial Hall was an outlier this spring, with 113 Maroon and Gold violations. Middlebrook was the next highest in these violation numbers, with 55.
COVID-19 doesn’t stop college life
At the very beginning of fall semester, large gatherings outside of Superblock, which includes Frontier, Centennial, Pioneer and Territorial Residence Halls, drew attention from around the state. Stubblefield said that HRL wanted CAs to focus on enforcing guidelines inside the residence hall buildings, not outside.
“I think CAs felt just such a sense of responsibility that they knew this was something that shouldn’t be happening,” Stubblefield said. “But we also have … guidelines that we really want them to stay focused inside the buildings.”
Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious disease specialist at Allina Health, said that in dormitories, students can make a significant difference in on-campus COVID-19 spread if they are “disciplined,” even with a roommate. But managing this on a large campus in a metropolitan area like the University is “on the extreme end of the difficulty spectrum,” he added.
Samantha Dragos, a first-year student in Frontier Hall, said that after the Superblock gatherings more students began to realize they had to be safer.
“I’d say a lot of kids realized … we can’t let this group just mess around and get us all kicked out and sent home,” Dragos said. “So I think after that everyone was like ‘OK, we need to take this seriously.’”
No campus gatherings comparable to those in early fall semester have been noted so far this spring.
Xavier said that emergency evacuation protocol was also troubling to navigate and that HRL did not seem to have a strong strategy for it. Xavier described a day at work when everyone in the residence hall had to evacuate as a fire alarm went off, and students in COVID-19 isolation units exited with everyone else. When students got outside, started taking their masks off and grouping up with others they knew, Xavier got worried — especially because it was not clear which students had been in isolation units.
“There are about like 200 students just outside on our front lawn, and we’re trying to get them to social distance, but there’s really just truly not enough space,” Xavier said. “That was like one of … the scariest moments for me, because I was like, ‘This right here looks like a superspreader.’”
When Xavier brought it up to a supervisor, they did not have an answer but said they would consider the situation.
Stubblefield said in an email that during an evacuation, “staff and residents are instructed to maintain as much physical distance as possible from others while wearing face coverings” and go “directly back to their assigned space, including quarantine or isolation spaces, once the alarm has been cleared.”
Marta Struve, a first-year student living in Frontier Hall, said that even though everyone should know what the guidelines are, people still left and came back once the door monitors left.
Caroline Lynch, a fourth-year door monitor, said she significantly limited her interaction with those in Yudof Hall, her University apartment building, to follow COVID-19 precautions. It is when she worked shifts at the residence halls that she noticed the most violations.
“My shift ends at 2 a.m., so the people who are breaking curfew can just wait until 2:05, and then they wouldn’t get caught for breaking curfew at all,” Lynch said. “That actually happened at my last shift. I clocked out and a whole group of five people came as soon as I clocked out.”
Shared concerns among students and CAs
The pushback for greater communication in the fall was coupled with the fight for hazard pay and proper PPE, both of which the CAs did not have in the beginning of the academic year. Multiple CAs spoke about the two overly-large facemasks they all received as their only form of protection.
It was not until a CA complained to their residence director and assistant residence director that they said they finally received hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and face shields — in their dorm, at least. Xavier said the face shields did not arrive until after most of the students in the building had moved out.
HRL announced Oct. 7 that CAs would be paid $20.50 per duty shift.
Xavier said that there has not been more PPE for CAs in the spring semester. Meagan Pierluissi, a University spokesperson, said that PPE items are the same this spring, and CAs can request replacements from the supervisors as needed. Supervisors facilitate getting the replacements, which come from HRL supplies or through U Market Services.
Stubblefield said that CAs have “a lot of venues” to provide feedback and that the department made efforts to be accessible to CAs by sending out a survey, attending some staff meetings and holding a Zoom call with CAs. In response to the insufficient PPE, Stubblefield said supervisors worked with CAs to get better fitting masks, and that as supplies became more available, HRL could provide the face shields, wipes and sanitizer.
Uncertainties continue into the spring
But dorm residents were still unsure of how their halls were faring, multiple students said. First-year students Maddie Coolidge, Dragos and Struve said they were frustrated by the lack of information regarding positive cases in their buildings.
“I would like to know more about the cases in the dorms, because I feel like they were really hush-hush about it,” Dragos said. “They wouldn’t tell you if people in your dorm [had coronavirus], which I feel like is essential information we should know.”
The only way residents said they knew about positive cases in their building was by word of mouth — which Coolidge said was frustrating, particularly as students prepared to leave the dorms for winter break.
Jake Ricker, a University spokesperson, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that case counts per residential hall are not tracked.
Pierluissi said in an email that the University’s Health Emergency Response Office works with Boynton Health and HRL to watch positivity rates on and around campus.
“In this case, the number of available isolation and quarantine spaces and any surges of positive cases in the area would prompt these experts to take further action, including determining the need for additional internal and external notifications to HRL staff and residents,” she said.
Stubblefield said that dissemination of that data is “more of a broader University decision about what information would be available.” Pierluissi said the University’s COVID-19 dashboard showing the overall aggregate number of positive cases across all campus housing, including University-owned apartment buildings, is “about as granular” as they can get.
“We should also come to campus with the assumption that the virus is within all aspects of our lives. …You kind of come to campus with that individual acceptance almost,” Pierluissi said. “We’re not going to break it down per building at that point, it’s going to be that positivity rate within our on-campus life.”
Xavier said prior to the beginning of the spring semester that while the upcoming semester felt less daunting, it was slightly nerve-wracking to be faced with new residents. Xavier observed students have been “more chill” so far this semester but mentioned warmer weather can create a trend of more residents hanging outside together, especially as they think of the academic year coming to a close.
As many look toward a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccine distribution growing, some CAs feel disregarded. Xavier said that CAs as a group are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, which is quite frustrating for many of them. If starting the 2020-21 year over again as a CA at the University, Xavier would “expect less and put yourself first.”
“I think there were plenty of times when I expected something to be done for us but instead I should have done what I needed to do for myself and move on,” Xavier said in a message to the Minnesota Daily. “I think that would have saved me a lot of stress.”