By Lena Gurley
Rather than training at a cabin and kayaking with her fellow resident assistants during the annual back to school training sessions, Sydnee Pendergraff had to sit six feet apart from other RAs, wear a mask, and listen to a lecture about new COVID-19 procedures.
“It was definitely a bit more extensive than last year’s training,” said Pendergraff, a Johnson Hall RA.
Pendergraff is one of 41 RAs trying to enforce new COVID-19 guidelines in the dorms.
Instead of bringing the residents in her hall together to create a sense of community, she finds herself forced to encourage people to stay six feet apart to protect the community.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines dictated the process of opening the dorms for the fall 2020 school year. The school also researched what other universities were doing, said Madeline Clark, Johnson Hall resident director.
The new COVID-19 procedures include no midnight curfew checks, no in-person room cleanliness checks, and no open dorms. The RAs are also to monitor the number of people in the lobbies, sanitize commonly touched areas, and remind people to wear their masks.
“We are doing clean room checks virtually this year. Typically, in-person room checks would be an opportunity for an RA to go in and check the room, but also check in on the residents and see how they’re doing and have a conversation. That kind of thing isn’t happening. I still think RAs are connecting with their residents, but it’s just not as much as in the past,” said Clark.
Most RAs on the campus agree that it is harder to get to know the people in their hall.
“I feel like I don’t know the residents as well as I would like to because of that boundary being there,” said Pendergraff.
Usually, the RAs would host hall and dorm events to build a closer bond with their residents. Instead, they have to be creative in the ways they connect with and support the people on their floor.
“I reach out by sending encouraging, uplifting messages in the group chat, inviting them to do things that are COVID friendly, and eating with them outside,” said Megan Richardson, Johnson Hall RA.
Although life in the COVID-19 pandemic has become more normal, the RAs still miss certain freedoms they used to be able to enjoy as part of their role.
“I just miss being able to plan group events where there can be a lot of people and we can be doing things together because I think that’s what builds community,” said Richardson.
Instead, the RDs and RAs are required to follow multiple COVID rules if they do put on events. The challenge is planning COVID-friendly events where only 25 people at a time can come, said Clark.
The new year in a pandemic also came with more emotional responsibilities for RAs. Richardson spends time calling and face-timing students in quarantine. She also hopes to plan a hall event where students can write letters to those in quarantine to encourage them.
“We are expected to have a lot more students who are struggling and having a hard time. I didn’t expect the emotional weight of seeing everybody go into quarantine,” said Richardson.
Although relationships within the hall dorms can be hard to create, the RD and RAs in Johnson Hall have a close relationship. They just have to communicate a little differently, especially when some of them are in quarantine.
Typically, the RD and RAs would go out and have a meal together to celebrate one of their birthdays. Despite complications and restrictions, they made a way to be together and support one another.
“The RA on the first floor’s birthday was on Monday and she was in quarantine. We basically ding-dong ditched her,” said Pendergraff. “We left the cake at the door, knocked, ran away, and then sang to her.”
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, without birthday parties, large groups, and planned events that usually keep people busy, Richardson came to realize what is most important.
“I think COVID has forced us to recognize what actually matters in life. Whether it’s friendships or rest or mental health, just don’t take anything for granted. Be thankful for everything you have every day that we’re alive and healthy,” said Richardson.