• Georgia Skuza

The Student-Leader Ambivalence: Working For a College During a Pandemic

As a human being, student, and a resident assistant, I’ve found this semester to be one of the most ruinous for folks across the board. Between civil unrest, a growing pandemic, and mental health stressors, living back on campus was the last thing on our minds. However, for universities nationwide, it was profit over health. Jefferson University was not far off of that rationale.

Many upperclassmen were able to opt to live on campus, if they were able to get a spot; otherwise, they would be housed in a hotel about ten minutes away from campus. About 800 students resided on campus due to Pennsylvania state COVID-19 restrictions. Where there are students, there are resident assistants (RA). As an RA, I understand the struggles that we have all gone through this semester, and will continue to go through next semester with the university’s plan to re-densify.

I compiled a list of questions that I distributed to other resident assistants to gather their honest feelings and thoughts about this semester, and the Spring. The following questions were administered:

1. What are your honest opinions about the university’s plan to re-densify for the Spring 2021 semester?

2. Have you attempted to express your concerns to the Deans of Jefferson? If so, what was the response you received?

3. Have you received PPE from Jefferson or any type of hazard pay for the work you are doing?

4. At any point, has the university reassured your concerns over the rising number of COVID-19 cases university and nationwide?

5. How was your fall semester? Were there any added stressors due to the pandemic?

6. Was your school work affected by this?

7. At any point during the semester did you think about resigning from your RA position?

8. Have you felt that your mental health has taken a decline since at school as an RA this semester?

9. Has the university asked you to do anything that you felt has/had put your health in danger?

10. Do you feel that the school has overlooked students' physical and mental health, to profit over the redensifying plans?

For all intents and purposes, my fellow colleagues will remain anonymous. I gathered six responses from RAs on the Jefferson University East Falls Campus.

Anonymous First-Year RA: “My honest thoughts on the redensification of the Spring semester are pessimistic. I worry for the general health of the campus and proximity of dorms. Not only will increased population result in more interactions, which has proven to increase disease transfer, but will enable more individuals to interact without precautionary measures (masks, social distancing, consistent sanitization). I have not expressed my thoughts and concerns to the Deans of Jefferson. I fear inadequacy of response due to responses in other circumstances. I have not received any form of hazard pay from Jefferson University regarding working during a pandemic. I believe it should have been instituted before, but I especially think it should be established now that there is an increased risk of COVID-19 transaction. The Jefferson student body has not received any COVID-19 cases briefing, whether it be email or corresponding residential life professional staff communication. This is highly unprofessional and inadequate leadership. The United States government has enabled endless information about rising COVID-19 numbers, why has a private institution not? Fall semester at Jefferson has been somewhat smooth. There have been instances of instability, however the plan the university has instilled since August has worked and reduced interactions, thus decreasing positive cases. School work this fall has been nothing less than overwhelming due to a change in learning atmosphere. Students have conveyed to professors and universities the excess workload, yet there has been no change in workload. I have thought of resigning from my RA position only a few times due to COVID-19 issues. Only as a result of not wanting to be on campus due to inadequacy of COVID-19 concerns by the university. My mental health has not declined due to being an RA this semester, but it has dramatically due to the workload issues aforementioned. The university has not asked me directly to do something I am uncomfortable with. I believe that the university has dramatically overlooked the physical and mental health of students by creating the new spring proposal. Not only does the proposal disembody the physical, medical health of the student body, which is hypocritical of a health-associated university and hospital, but it also dismantles the struggle of restricted socialization the pandemic has caused. Increasing population will not solve this restriction of peers.”

Anonymous First Year RA: “Based on the statistics of COVID cases, it contradicts the seriousness of the pandemic and the claims Jefferson repetitively states about our health being their number one concern. Specifically, I am most concerned about Ronson housing completely going back to normal with doubles, while Fortess, Mott, and Partridge are designed for triples and quads are only going to be doubles. Considering two roommates in Ronson can reach over their beds and touch hands, the Ronson rooms should be kept as singles. There is not enough space to even attempt practicing six feet social distancing if desired by a resident. I have not attempted to express my concern. I only received PPE from Jefferson during move-in at the beginning of the semester, and have received zero hazard pay for my two jobs on campus despite both jobs requiring intensive in person interaction. No, HIPPA repetitively limits my concerns regarding COVID cases. For instance, there was no reassurance about concerns with sharing common living spaces with other residents that are potentially COVID positive. The fall semester was more mentally exhausting because of the pandemic. Also, hearing any coughs from another student caused immediate anxiety. Due to some in person classes transferring to online in the middle of the semester, I had to completely switch my studying methods to succeed in taking online exams. Unfortunately, the switch from in person to online occurred during the day of an exam so my grade was dramatically affected. The idea of sharing common living spaces with more people had me think about resigning from my RA position. I am frequently mentally exhausted since at school as an RA this semester. No, the university is only increasing my chances of being exposed to COVID next semester with the roommate arrangements being returned back to normal. Yes, the school should have agreed to make classes completely online and provide on-campus housing only for students that require it due to certain circumstances. This method would better accommodate COVID regulations.”

Anonymous Second-Year RA: “I do not like these plans at all. They make me fear for the physical and mental health of myself and my peers. I feel that it is extremely foolish to redensify when the cases are rising rapidly. I have not. I am trying to decide if I even want to return for the Spring semester. I feel like my safety has been compromised. I received leftover masks from welcome week bags. I also received one mask and a face shield at the beginning of the semester. No hazard pay. No. Not besides Klasko's weekly emails highlighting why Jefferson is so great, and ignoring the current problems. Academically, I feel like online classes are more difficult to pay attention to and focus on. Health-wise, I'm constantly paranoid that I am sick and it's taxing constantly informing people to wear masks. There's hardly any mask and social distance enforcement other than the RAs. It's hard to focus on online classes. And it's hard to do my work in my room and it's very isolating. Yes, I am currently considering resigning from my role for the Spring 2021 semester. Yes. Not specifically. But I feel like my health is compromised the same as my residents, living with communal bathrooms without notice if any of our hallmates have tested positive. Yes, definitely.”

Anonymous Second-Year RA: “I think it’s ridiculous. It just shows how the University has a more invested interest in making money rather than keeping their students safe. I was told that my spending 70 straight hours in my room- only leaving the building once to get COVID tested and immediately returning, showering (and therefore removing my mask) in a communal space while waiting for results was the exact same thing as the Dean of Students sitting in his office all day long and using the bathroom. They have a fake empathy- it is not genuine and they think they know what we are going through and dealing with, then choose to ignore us when we tell them their “solutions” don't work. All the students received two masks at move in. I received one additional mask, one pack of wipes, and one face shield in August and nothing since. Nope! Online classes are harder for me to concentrate and learn in- so adding the stress of, you know, living through a major pandemic and time of social and civil unrest definitely didn’t help. Yes. I feel like I am constantly producing subpar work at the last minute because I have so much to do in such little time. Yes. If I could move off campus immediately I would. Yes. Not myself particularly, but I am nowhere near qualified enough to be yelling at students as a COVID policy enforcer- especially with the freshman. Absolutely. There is zero doubt in my mind about this.”

Anonymous First Year RA: “Jefferson’s ambition to re-densify its resident halls is extremely concerning. This fall semester has accumulated 168 cases of positive-testing residents with COVID-19, and that was with residents rooming one person to a dorm. The university will be putting more people, not just residents but also the staff, at risk. I have not expressed my concerns to the deans out of fear of losing my position as a resident assistant. Jefferson provided two face masks and a protective facial screen at the beginning of the year. If you lose your masks, however, I think Jefferson charges you for new ones at the school store, effectively profiting off students’ need for protection on their campus grounds. By re-densifying in the spring, the university is heightening my anxiety surrounding the global pandemic. Despite

the amount of increasing cases of COVID-19 in the United States, let alone in the state of Pennsylvania, it is apparent that Jefferson’s pursuit is not for our well-being, but for their own monetary benefit. There is a disregard for our health, which is ironic considering their reputation as a medical institution. My fall semester has been riddled with stress, anxiety, and frustration. Residents, RHMs, food distributors, and even public safety officers are ignorant when it comes to following COVID policy. I feel the most secure in my room. Jefferson’s strictness on this global pandemic, as it is right now, is highly discouraging and concerning. This has added a new level of intensity to the RA position, and there is no compensation for our work in this hazardous field. If this is how we are being treated now, I have little hope for improvement in the spring. Since the start of the year, my professors have indicated that I have been detached from class conversation and my work ethic has dropped considerably. Living and working in fear is costing me my education and success thereof. I have had my doubts before. However, the decision to re-densify is a threat to my health, as well as the health of those around me. Not only that, but Jefferson would be doubling the amount of stress I have felt so far. I have shown symptoms of mild depression this semester, and my anxiety has hit a new peak. It has been a struggle getting through this semester. To leave my room is dangerous. Residents do not follow the COVID policy Jefferson has instated, nor have other staff members. To go and get food at Ravenhill Dining Hall always triggers my anxiety. I see employees wipe their face and mouths, mask-less, and then continue to prepare, and distribute food by hand. Some do not even bother to wear a mask to begin with. Living with residents, unknowing of their conditions, is just as scary. They could be spreading the virus through high-touch places, like door handles and our shared bathroom, and I wouldn’t even know it. Absolutely.”

Anonymous Second Year RA: “I am honestly aggravated and upset with the school. It shows how they show no empathy or care towards the semester, but rather are in it just for the money. COVID cases are rising and having a densified residence hall will just be putting more people in danger. Everyone has to share a communal bathroom, and most of the bathrooms are small to the point of maintaining social distancing for more than two people at a time is not feasible. On top of that, RAs, who are also students, will be having to do more roles that they did not sign up for and will be placed under more pressure and stress. The Deans of Jefferson had a meeting with RAs earlier this Fall semester to discuss and voice our concerns. Though the deans made it seem like they were going to actually listen to us and consider our concerns to help improve the school, nothing has been done. For example, we were told that there would be "mask police/monitors" in Ravenhub (where most of the students gather) and that only lasted for a week or so. It's as if everything we tell them goes in one ear and out the other. Other RAs have individually met with the Deans to further discuss their concerns as well, but nothing has changed or improved. The Deans make it seem like they are "with us", but they are not the ones actually living with the students and dealing with them in the residence halls. We were told we were but we didn't receive anything. All of the students who moved in (non-RAs) received a bag with a face mask and wipes and we were told we were also going to receive one as well, but didn't. RAs only were able to get it as there was a bunch leftover from the move-in days. Also, the Office of ResLife provided us clear protective face shields to wear on top of our masks and we were told that the University was going to replenish them for us every few weeks but that did not happen at all. In regard to hazard pay, the RAs brought it up during our meeting with the Deans earlier this semester and we were told that they were going to "look into it", but never got back to us. No. My fall semester was not that great, considering we are going through a pandemic. The pandemic definitely added more stressors, especially with the school's lack of response and care towards the students. This also affected my mental health. My school work was affected as I felt very overwhelmed at all times. Also, since most of the students in my classes are upperclassmen and staying at home, they didn't have to deal with the added stressor of living on campus, so I felt alone in my struggles. Yes. Yes, definitely. I felt like I had to take on more work than I should have and wasn't provided the proper resources from the University. I am tired of having conversations that lead to no change. Being an RA alone has put my health in danger, and to add to this, the University has done nothing to improve the safety of the school, no matter how many times we complain to them. Yes, definitely. That's why we are even on campus, for the money. If the university really cared, they would've kept us at home and only had housing for those with toxic and unsafe living situations back home. I understand they wanted students to experience campus living and get the real college living, but so many students (RAs and non-RAs) feel even further isolated on campus. Most of my residents go home on the weekends as they feel sad and isolated on campus.”

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