The Argument for Priority Vaccination of Campus Staff

Housing and residence life professionals have been on the front lines of COVID-19, often without access to appropriate personal protective equipment or regular testing, writes Mary DeNiro.

February 11, 2021
 
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In times of crisis, college and university administrators depend on campus housing and residence life professionals to rise to the challenge of safeguarding students when their well-being is individually or communally compromised. Over the past 11 months, campus housing and residence life professionals have been on the front lines of COVID-19 on our residential campuses. They are first responders who have gone so far above and beyond as to defy description, and yet they have often done so without access to appropriate personal protective equipment or regular testing.

As we enter a new phase of coronavirus response, these professionals -- live-in housing and residence life, food service, housekeeping, maintenance, custodial services, and other staff members who work and reside in congregate living situations as a requirement of their jobs -- must be prioritized for vaccination before campuses move further toward reopening and in-person education.

Across the country, pressure continues to mount on institutional leaders to offer more on-campus, in-person, “new normal” experiences. Elected officials, students and parents, encouraged by news of vaccine availability and efficacy, believe our institutions should be open and ready to welcome students, faculty and staff back to campus as soon as possible. Data indicate that more institutions are offering more in-person instruction this semester; we are also seeing spikes in student cases as the result of travel back to campus and interpersonal interactions in violation of CDC guidance and, in many cases, campus policies.

As these spikes hit, residence life and housing professionals are again on the front lines, helping students manage illness and academic work; shuttling individuals in and out of quarantine and isolation spaces; and delivering food, medication and personal items. Housekeeping and facilities staff are cleaning and maintaining these buildings in accordance with enhanced cleaning protocols, while also continuing to oversee the remainder of housing and communal spaces across campus.

While higher education’s front-line personnel are adept at managing the increasingly complex issues students are facing, the COVID-19 public health crisis has changed campus life in unimaginable and unpredictable ways. The continually shifting needs and expectations of managing the pandemic’s impact have tested the strength and spirit of students, faculty, staff, families and other stakeholders. And yet residence life and housing staff have sacrificed and dedicated additional time and effort to ensure that their colleges and universities could reopen safely and that crucial education, research and services could continue. Campus housing professionals are acutely aware that their diligence has immediate implications for their institution’s financial stability, and that providing a positive experience for students, despite the arduous conditions under which they’re living and learning, has direct and long-lasting effects on retention and persistence.

At the same time, while we in higher education track the progress of vaccination efforts and calculate how soon shots will be available to our parents, our spouses and our friends, we are also tracking the longer-term repercussions of the pandemic -- emotional and physical -- on our staff that will last far beyond 2020. Along with many of their colleagues throughout institutions who are considered critical to the successful operation of their communities, campus housing staff have made personal and professional sacrifices on a daily basis to be present and engaged with their students.

As students arrive on campuses across the country, college and university leaders have the opportunity to give campus housing and residential life staff the protection they need by urging state medical officers and governors to include those higher education front-line staff in high-priority groups for vaccination. Last week, my organization, the Association of College and University Housing Officers -- International, took the first step, writing to the governors of all 55 states and territories, as well as the mayor of Washington, D.C., to urge them to take this step to protect employees and move us toward our shared goal of reaching a new normal on our campuses. We hope to be joined by all those who understand the vital role played by front-line campus staff in keeping us all safe, healthy and together.

Bio

Mary DeNiro is CEO of the Association of College and University Housing Officers -- International (ACUHO-I), representing more than 17,000 campus housing and residence life professionals around the globe.

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