On March 31, when COVID-19 had most of us shifting to online learning and remote engagement, the Brookings Institute put out the report, "How to protect essential workers during COVID-19." Three months later, as we look ahead to fall 2020 and what higher education might look like, administrators are struggling with balancing student, faculty and staff well-being with institutional fiscal responsibilities, leadership ethics, the expectations of families and alumni, and potential political, health and public relations outcomes.
As a faculty member, I have been working from the safety of my home. I have had some Zoom fatigue and have been challenged with online engagement and missed celebrating graduation with my students. But I have had the autonomy to control where I go and to whom I have been exposed. I have been able to manage my own environmental safety.
Looking at my friends who are essential employees, I have been reminded to be grateful for the privilege I have. The custodial staff at my institution has worked as hard as ever and -- according to plans that universities are rolling out -- will be working even harder this fall when students return and most campuses try to get as "close to traditional" student experiences as possible. Cleaning classrooms and common areas repeatedly while still being expected to clean what they have always cleaned in the past -- that's a lot.
Additionally, some employees have always "worked from home": our residence hall live-in staff. I worked in student conduct before my current role, but I worked in residence life and housing as a hall director for a long time before that. Many of my colleagues and friends, as well as the students who graduate from the program in which I teach, work as hall directors. It is a difficult, albeit rewarding, job in the best of times.
I can't imagine what that job will entail this fall.
For starters, most of the hall directors I know have had a ridiculously busy summer. Some have been packing students' belongings to have them shipped home. Others have had to work in quarantine areas where students exposed to or with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been kept in isolation. Still others have worked on "move out" for weeks as students and their families slowly trickled back to res halls to get their items that have been on the campus since students left for spring break (and never came back).
Some of those staff members have been on call non-stop since the residence halls "closed." Some students have stayed on campus because not all of them have had another place to go. In those cases, dealing with issues of student safety, food insecurity, isolation, and depression have taken a tremendous toll on residence hall staff.
They haven't had a break.
And now let's look at fall. Whether institutions are working to have halls at or near full capacity, spread out to minimize group exposure to COVID-19 or some other variation, this all creates more work and stress for the live-in hall staff. Most of them are young, newer professionals -- many are directly out of grad school. They are vulnerable in terms of financial security and limited job prospects, especially in a time of pandemic. They can't just quit and get a different job.
Not only have these staff members been overworked (and they are historically undercompensated for jobs that require them to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week), but they have been facing the same challenges the rest of us deal with: fear for their own health and safety in the face of COVID-19 as well as for their families who may be living with them in the halls (yes, that's a thing); stress and anxiety in the face of ongoing murders of Black and African American and other people of color in our country; protests; as well as carrying the weight of the pain of many students in their communities who are struggling with these issues, too. Student death is still an issue. Student depression is still an issue. Student anxiety is still an issue. And, more often than not, the hall director or the student RA staff members are the ones who have to help students find resources and navigate their most difficult moments in college.
So what is the hall director's job this fall? How do they keep students safe outside of classrooms? What does mask-wearing look like in residential communities? I don't have to wear a mask in my own home -- are we expecting students will do that? What about when they eat in dining halls? When staff speak at a party in the residence halls (because parties will definitely happen) the implications are completely different than in the past. What does that mean when we are asking staff to go into group situations and risk their own health to address a large gathering of students?
Okay, so this could snowball on and on and on. That's not my point.
Instead, I am writing to ask for brilliant and creative thinking on the part of supervisors, divisions of student affair and top-level administrators on campus. I have six key steps that I hope you each will consider, partner with live-in staff to explore and develop plans around. These are just a start to the conversation.
Ask your staff what they need. This seems like common sense, but I know that you as leaders and supervisors are busy with many things: calls from parents, policy revisions, move-in planning, use of other spaces (classrooms, dining halls, alternative living areas), programmatic adjustments (what does student involvement look like during COVID-19?) and so on. When we get busy, such check-ins with our staff members can sometimes get sidelined.
Please make these conversations a priority before students begin coming back this fall, as they are returning and throughout the upcoming year. Don't discuss what hall directors will need to do without involving them directly. Their supervisors who live off-campus do not have the insight to advocate for them. None of us who have worked in residence life in the past know what this is like except for the people doing it right now.
Structure and hold staff accountable to time for themselves. I am not phrasing this as "self-care." The impetus for care and support right now needs to come from the top down. Your live-in professionals may not be great at saying no to students even if they are desperately need time to recuperate. Don't simply say, "Take time when you need it." You need to structure time away for them and insist on it. Again, your staff is exhausted already. And your staff members of color are not only worn out from pandemic work but also from the racial battle fatigue that they face every day and that has been exacerbated in recent months.
Acknowledge the work. Live-in staff do not get to go home at night into spaces where they can claim time to rest or find quiet. They live at work. They hear students all the time. They can't just turn it off once they are in their apartments.
Recognize that you do not share their lived experience. Many hall director supervisors once lived in halls themselves. While past experience is helpful at times, in this instance, it is not. As mentioned, none of us who have done the work before have experienced the mental, emotional and physical strains hall directors are experiencing now. The current situation requires recalibration and making space for current hall director's expertise in today's context and campus climate.
Advocate for hall directors. Live-in staff are some of the only student affairs professionals who have maintained uninterrupted physical presence on our campuses over the past months. This is no small burden. Advocate for them in spaces they do not have access to. Do not shy away from explaining and constantly reminding upper-level administrators about what hall directors have done. While many vice presidents for student affairs were managing COVID-19 operations and planning via Zoom from their own homes, live-in staff were implementing those ideas and processes in real time in the same space as students.
Identify and pursue new possibilities and collaborations. In thinking about fall, hall director positions will need to shift drastically from community building to community management, given all that's required to keep staff and students safe. Which parts of their jobs can be reassigned elsewhere to staff who have been working from home and will probably continue to do so? How can divisions of student affairs share the load?
Of course, the best recommendation is not to open the halls at all this fall -- to keep students at home and safe, and by extension, keep people on the campus safe. We've already seen multiple examples of student athletes, fraternity members and other groups of students gathering and then COVID-19 cases surging as a result.
Please plan with as much intentionality and care for the live-in residence hall and other essential employees as you do for students, faculty and others in higher education. Such staff members aren't spending a few hours a week in a classroom with students in masks. They are living with those students every single day and night.