After navigating months of tumultuous COVID-19 updates, students returned to Emory campuses ready to make friends, start classes and regain a sense of normalcy. But less than two weeks into the school year, numerous resident advisers (RA) are exasperated: students blatantly ignore safety regulations and RAs are unprepared to enforce them.
“Folks seem to be using masks or negative tests as excuses to disregard safety protocols,” said Anthony Wong (21C), an Atlanta campus RA. “There seems to be a lack of desire from higher-ups to hold folks accountable or they just don’t have a plan on how.”
Citing numerous dorm parties and large in-person gatherings, residence Life student staff members on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses are frustrated with first-years disregarding the Emory Community Compact and administrators poorly enacting repercussions. These guidelines, such as wearing masks in public spaces and staying six feet apart, follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s official recommendations.
For many, being an RA has become synonymous with policy enforcer, a position they didn’t sign up for. On his first day on call, Atlanta campus RA Ryan Lubin (22B) spent six hours responding to Compact infractions and breaking up first-year dorm parties.
“We were very, very explicitly told that we would not be the campus police,” said an Oxford RA who requested to remain anonymous. “We shouldn’t be policing students to wear their masks or enforce social distancing. That was not in our contract.”
These concerns come as colleges nationwide struggle to control COVID-19 outbreaks, with some like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill shutting down altogether. RAs at other universities, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Utah, used social media to issue safety demands to school leadership. At Cornell University (N.Y.), administration partially fulfilled RAs’ demands, including providing PPE and increasing communication about safety plans, after a one-day strike.
Within the last two weeks, nine students and seven faculty or staff members tested positive at Emory through either Emory-conducted or self-reported tests, the recently launched COVID-19 dashboard states.
Despite administrators assuring students that campus safety will be maintained if they follow precautions, Residence Life staff members who live on campus see a different picture. If current levels of compact noncompliance continue, many believe a campus-wide outbreak is inevitable.
“It’s a little frustrating when we live on this campus and have to deal with the same things all the other students deal with, and [administrators] that don’t live on campus are saying, ‘No, it’s fine,’” said Oxford campus RA Tatiana Navarrete (21Ox). “When you have our perspective, it’s like, are you sure about that? Because I asked this one kid to put on his mask like fifteen times, and he wouldn’t do it.”
Matthew Nails (22C), an RA in Atlanta, cited instances in which students haven’t social distanced in public spaces or worn masks as a concern, such as congregating in dorm rooms without masks.
“People are living as if there isn’t a pandemic,” Nails said. “I was expecting responsibility in terms of enforcing things, but not to this extent.”
Oftentimes, RAs see students leave campus with evidence of large social gatherings on social media the next day. Though RAs don’t hold jurisdiction over these events, they worry that consequences of such actions will affect everyone. The Oxford RA said for many students, “the idea is just not to get caught.”
While campus proctors (CP) were hired on the Atlanta campus to regulate public student gatherings, they are not present at Oxford and don’t monitor residential spaces. Additionally, their work hours are from 6 p.m. to midnight, a time during which students are not outside as often. Extra responsibility thus falls on Residence Life student staff to enforce the rules.
Mikail Albritton (22C), a CP, is more optimistic about compliance, noting that while he has seen first-years violating guidelines by congregating in large groups, most comply with social distancing rules once reminded. Albritton stated that some students believe social gatherings should be allowed because on-campus residents have tested negative during move-in.
“Even though I have seen some people just completely disregard the rules, I would say a majority of the freshman have understood what the rules are, and even though they may not like them, they follow them because they help,” Albritton said.
However, because CPs are limited to public spaces, RAs take responsibility within their halls. Obligated to enforce distancing rules outlined in the Compact, RAs are often “the bad guys” that reprimand or report students who break protocol.
The Compact, signed by all students prior to returning to campus, states that “most violations of this Compact will be handled expeditiously using a community accountability model” and “serious, pervasive and/or repeated violations of the Compact will be grounds for a disciplinary review and action.” Despite writing up students multiple times, RAs haven’t seen sanctions against reoffenders.
“I find it somewhat comical how Emory has handled the punishments for people,” Lubin said. “It doesn’t seem like anything’s happening to them — they’re just getting a slap on the wrist … If the punishment isn’t strong enough, then they’re going to do it time and time again.”
Lubin explained that when a student is written up, the report is sent to the Office of Student Conduct. However, it’s unclear how COVID-19 infractions are handled compared to breaking typical restrictions like drinking in dorms. Lubin and the other RAs are unaware of any students punished for COVID-19-related infractions.
Many RAs fault upper administration for not instilling a sense of urgency in students. Wong addressed an instance when Emory Police Department broke up a student party at Lullwater Preserve and the University didn’t publicly address the incident.
“You can’t just not say anything after that happens,” Wong said. “Sending someone home would send the biggest signal that you can’t be reckless, but if you’re going to keep using carrots instead of a stick, the carrot needs to come from someone higher up.”
Despite an ostensible lack of repercussions, several RAs emphasized that enforcing regulations has come at the cost of developing relationships with residents.
“Residents don’t see us as resources or places to go for help,” Wong said. “They see us as enforcers first and foremost, and … it’s difficult for them to trust us.”
Wong said he and multiple RAs across the Atlanta campus reported their concerns to their building complex directors, who are sympathetic and have advocated on their behalf, though it’s unclear to whom. Necessary changes are in the hands of upper administrators who haven’t addressed their questions.
“I don’t know if they just don’t hear us,” Wong said. “I’m not sure how much the people who control the policies and have power understand the depths of the situation.”
Senior Director of Residence Life Scott Rausch and Vice President of Academic Communications Nancy Seideman did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the handling of reported violations by press time.
These newfound enforcement responsibilities have taken a toll on RAs’ mental health. Another anonymous Oxford RA said that since coming to campus, they have been “lonely” and “frustrated.” Seeing first-years “abuse their privilege” of being around others hasn’t helped given that many RAs’ upperclassmen friends couldn’t also return to campus.
“I can’t be a normal student anymore; I’m just a policy enforcer,” the RA said. “We’ve had difficulty building community to the point where it’s become stressful. Sometimes I have to go out of my way to make sure there’s no people in the hallways before I walk out because dealing with people is kind of hard.”
Some RAs also feel the University failed to adequately adapt to allow for social opportunities, as many buildings remain closed and activities restricted. Lubin’s not surprised that many first-years turn to unsafe options like gathering in rooms.
“Freshmen are getting such a diminished experience,” Lubin said. “What are they supposed to do with themselves? There’s nothing on campus. They sit at a computer all day, and they go to sleep and wake up again.”
To remedy this problem, Lubin said the University needs to organize community-building activities so that first-year students can safely socialize. This could include encouraging students to go for walks or organizing virtual activities, he said. This would also enhance his experience as an RA, adding, “I don’t know any of my residents this year.”
Navarrete said while she felt supported by residence life coordinators at Oxford, she would like the University to “recognize the level of the work” RAs accomplish, pointing to a pay raise or stipend for the RAs as potential avenues.
“A little bit of marketing isn’t going to fix everything,” she said, referring to the University’s new public health campaign. “You can’t tell me that this job is the same as it would’ve been before.”
Many RAs suggest that CPs be stationed in residence halls where more infractions occur, which would allow RAs to focus on building communities.
Nails urged on-campus students to follow safety guidelines, adding he “knows what it’s like to be forced to leave campus without saying goodbye.” Vulnerable students, such as those who rely on campus housing, as well as immunocompromised individuals, have much to lose should campus shut down, he said.
Nails hopes first-year students will “be considerate,” a sentiment Wong echoed.
“At the end of the day, if you want to build community and make friends, you can’t do that at all if you get sent home.”
Correction (8/31/20 at 10:05 p.m.): A previous version of this article spelled Oxford RA Tatiana Navarrete’s last name incorrectly on first reference.