Resident advisers demand stronger protections from 'U' on eve of student move-in

Sunday, August 23, 2020 - 9:40pm

Students move out of dorms at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Students move out of dorms at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

More than 80 University of Michigan resident advisers are calling for increased health and safety protections from University administrators, listing their demands in a letter sent Sunday night. Students begin moving in Monday.

The RAs want a response from University Housing leadership in writing within 24 hours from when their letter was sent over email Sunday night. They wanted to give the University an opportunity to respond and address their concerns before resorting to “alternative measures,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Daily.

“We want to continue to support our residents, especially during these troubling times,” the letter reads. “However, it has become clear that the University’s current plan regarding on-campus housing and ResStaff roles is not conducive to keeping student communities safe during this pandemic. In light of remote training and recent ResStaff experiences within our on-campus communities, we strongly feel that we are unprepared to ensure the safety of ourselves, let alone our residents and our community.”

All RAs signed the letter using pseudonyms or with their initials out of fear of retribution or termination of their position. The RAs have asked for protection from retaliation, including firing, demotion or loss of scholarships or compensation, for those who speak against University Housing.

In the letter, RAs asked for University leadership to have empathy and open communication with the RA community, which they say is largely comprised of students who are people of color, identify as LGBTQ+ or struggle with food or housing insecurity. These RAs say they understand the importance of their role and want to do their jobs well, especially in light of the pandemic, but feel ill-prepared to execute their duties fully and safely without additional health protocols in place.

Demands listed include added measures for health and safety, such as plexiglass between sinks in shared bathrooms and more hand sanitizing stations. The letter also asked for high-density areas like shared bathrooms in residence halls to be cleaned at least three times per day.

Individually, the RAs have asked for enough personal protective equipment to use when helping residents move-in and working in public spaces. They have also requested the option for staff members to receive COVID-19 testing throughout the year given the fact that they work in highly populated areas.

The University will prioritize tests for symptomatic people. Those without symptoms can get tested if they believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are in high risk professions. RAs are not included in the latter group. 

The letter asked for standard expectations for RA responsibilities across residence halls amid the pandemic and for guidance on how to handle a resident who tests positive for the virus.

In the letter, the RAs said they hope Housing leadership “will be able to grant us the same empathy and understanding they have instilled in us to show within our communities.”

University Housing did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Starting Monday, students will begin moving into University housing, a staggered process RAs are expected to help facilitate over the course of the week. Each resident will be allowed only one person to assist them, according to the University’s Housing website.

Thousands of students from across the U.S. and world will arrive for what the University has called a “public health-informed” in-residence, hybrid fall semester starting later this month. Approximately 70 percent of classes will be taught remotely, but all in-person coursework will end after Thanksgiving break.

The letter comes on the heels of an announcement from Cornell University’s RAs that they would strike if not given additional safety measures, a voice in housing decisions and hazard pay, The Cornell Daily Sun first reported last week. The strike ended after Cornell’s administration agreed to discuss the group’s demands.

Some of the demands included in the University’s RA letter echoed those of the RAs at Cornell.

The letter called for “direct communication from administration and Michigan Housing regarding COVID-19 related additions to RA duties before emails about residential life are sent to the community at large.” Cornell RAs similarly asked the school to notify residential staff members when a new duty has been requested of them before telling the public that duty can be expected.

U-M RAs have also asked for a liaison to convey their concerns to University Housing’s upper management, a demand that parallels Cornell RAs’ request for representation in decision making. The letter asked Housing to keep this position intact permanently.

Residential staff members received an email from University Housing leadership Sunday morning — one day before move-in begins and approximately eight hours before the letter was sent — with answers to frequently asked questions. 

The Housing email, which was obtained by The Daily, had more information in a document labeled “privileged and confidential” on what to do when residents do not comply with public health guidelines. The document said that an incident report should be submitted every time a student is not wearing a face covering, maintaining social distancing or has a guest in their residential community.

In an answer to a question about enforcement of public health guidelines, the email noted documenting or addressing violations of protocols “does not fall completely” on residential staff. The email pointed to Michigan Ambassadors’ student staff — a program that has sparked controversy for partnering with police — as University Housing’s partner in regulating student behavior. 

University Housing leadership also noted in the email that bathrooms and showers will be disinfected two times per day and communal spaces, if reopened in the future, will be cleaned after each use. The email also specified that quarantine or isolation housing is available at Northwood Apartments and Baits II Residence Hall, where each resident can have a private room and bathroom.

RAs told The Daily anonymously that this email may have made other RAs worried about signing the letter, even without using their name or initials, out of fear that University Housing leadership was aware a letter was being created before it was sent.

The email also included a link to a Google form allowing RAs and other residential staff members to submit questions to University Housing leadership. The form requires people to list their name and position.

University Housing leadership wrote in the email that they wanted to address some “concerns, questions, and misinformation” circulating as residential staff members begin moving students into housing.

“Each and every one of you is a critical member of the Michigan Housing team and we are committed to your health and safety,” University Housing leadership wrote. “We know that this is a difficult and uncertain time in many ways as we all work to navigate reopening our residential communities.”

The email continued: "While we cannot predict the future, your concerns are important to us."

This is a developing story. Check back at michigandaily.com for updates.

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu.