Resident assistants express concerns regarding their safety

Samuel Casey

Editor in Chief

 

Since students were sent home last semester, The College of Wooster COVID-19 Task Force worked to formulate a plan to safely allow students to return to campus. This included universal mask-wearing, social distancing of at least six feet and getting tested, as well as signing a Community Care Agreement stipulating repercussions if guidelines were not followed. Despite feeling confident upon arrival in early August, Residence Assistants (RAs) were immediately confronted with issues due to negligence from both the College’s administration and first-year students
who started moving in on Aug. 11.

On Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, Jonah Kadens ’21, a student and three year RA, sent an email to President Sarah Bolton, Dean of Student Myrna Hernández and Director of Residence Life Nathan Fein detailing these concerns and what led him to resign from his post and his decision to return home to study remotely. In the bulk of the email, addressed to Hernández specifically, Kadens describes several instances where he and other RAs felt unsupported and
were forced to work in conditions contrary to their physical and mental safety. This includes issues with walkthroughs, training, Security and Protective Services (SPS), first year move-in and wearing masks.

“After under two weeks of being at school, I felt like I was forced to choose to protect my health, safety and potentially my life, or to keep my job,” Kadens said. “I blame the fact that I had to make this choice on [the] abysmally poor leadership and decision making. RAs have been telling you for weeks that we feel like your expectations of us are unreasonable and unsafe. We are not trying to get out of doing our work, we are worried for our health. RAs all understand that we have a responsibility to work to build and maintain safe and supportive communities in our halls. We do not have problems hosting programs; however, we are being asked to plan more programs, with less advance notice, less support and the same budget we have always had.”

Additionally, at the beginning of the year, RAs were confronted with  issues from the Task Force itself. Shankar Bhat ’22, a second-year RA, said, “The worst was when Angela Johnston, secretary of the College, allegedly claimed, ‘students will get sick and then get over it.’ Such comments were incredibly callous and dismissive and at that point most of the RAs lost much of the confidence they had in the Task Force.” RAs were immediately faced with walkthroughs and how to make them safer. During a typical school year, RAs have to do walkthroughs of bathrooms and community spaces up to 10 times a semester for three to four different residence halls and cover the on-call phone. “We know that students will not comply 100 percent with wearing masks when going to the bathroom or walking down the hall and this concerned us because this is an airborne virus,” Bhat said. “It took a very long time but eventually we were able to decouple the walkthroughs from the on-call phone. Now we do walkthroughs of just our building (lower exposure risk) more frequently and have the on-call phone separately.

While we are glad to have accomplished this decoupling for this semester, we had to fight far longer to get this. Because of the  resistance from Hernández and Fein, this took time away from training.”

For the move-in of first years, RAs were promised personal protective equipment (PPE) from Res Life, but it was not delivered.

“RAs were told that we would be safe during move in because we would be given extra PPE. We were not,” Kadens explained. “The day before move-in, I went to the Res Life office and asked for a box of disposable masks to pass out to residents and to parents who were not wearing masks. I was told that there were none available. I  understand that there are supply chain shortages but what am I supposed to do when I am told that I can do my job safely because I will be given extra PPE but then do not receive the PPE that I was promised?”

Regarding mask enforcement, RAs were initially told they wouldn’t be the “mask police” but that changed quickly after students arrived on campus.

“We were told that if we did not feel safe interacting with unmasked residents, we could call SPS,” Kadens said. “Many RAs did call SPS (myself included) who told us that it was our job to enforce the mask policy. Dispatchers from SPS actively bullied new RAs into performing duties that were completely outside of what they were expected to do. As a returning RA, when I called SPS to report a large gathering of unmasked freshman playing full contact football on the quad (probably before receiving their test results), I had to spend about ten minutes arguing with the dispatcher before they reluctantly agreed to send an officer ‘this timeonly.’”

The first weekend where the Class of 2024 was on campus, however, was when a lot of the major problems
started. Kadens was not on-call, but still had to dedicate three hours to responding to situations on campus. This included two parties, a group of 15 students who were not social distancing and other infractions that were made clear through interactions with other RAs and SPS officers. “I heard about public urination,a physical fight, a hospitalization and a large group that traveled to Akron to go to a party. This was one night,” Kadens said. “Those students have not been asked to leave campus. RAs (including myself) went above and beyond the expectations of our positions and came into close contact with an extreme number of unmasked residents. This was not safe for us, but we felt like we had no choice but torespond.”

In the end, Kadens was forced to decide between his health and senior year experience, choosing to return home to continue the fall semester despite not having access to wireless internet.

In response to Kadens, Bolton apologized while also supporting Hernández and Fein.

“Some decisions were made in advance of RA training, but Dean Hernández, Dean [Justin] Adkins and Mr. Fein also worked with RAs before, during and after RA orientation to work out others,” Bolton said. “As additional issues and needs arose — whether from RAs or from other students — new approaches needed to be figured out, and we all did our best to do so, in circumstances that were new to everyone. An example of this was how to safely welcome new students and families when orientation itself was entirely online. But this need to develop new approaches as we try out our plans is true across the College, and at other institutions as well.”

Despite continuous clarifications from Res Life and the Dean of Students Office, RAs have felt
frustrated about the issues they faced at the beginning and will continue to look to the administration for ways to keep safe during this unconventional school year.

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