IOWA CITY — At the end of last year, when University of Iowa senior Matt Fuelberth applied to be a first-time resident assistant this fall in Burge Hall, students were still meeting in classrooms, going to parties and cramming for tests in just as crammed study spaces.
And then COVID-19 changed everything — including what the job he had applied for would entail, if it existed at all.
“I was mostly worried,” Fuelberth, 21, told The Gazette this month as he moved in to the university’s Burge Hall, which five months ago was evacuated — along with every other dorm — when the campus shifted online to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
Fuelberth said he wasn’t necessarily worried about doing a job in riskier conditions, but rather “that I wouldn’t have the job anymore.”
Now that all three of Iowa’s public universities have decided to bring students back to campus for a hybrid fall semester that prioritizes in-person learning and lets them live in the halls, Fuelberth said he’s glad to have a job as an RA. But he’s a little less enthused about a gig he expected would involve heavy student engagement.
“I’m less excited because I won’t have as much interaction with my residents,” he said.
The interaction he does have will look different, too — in that rapport-building one-on-one “Hawk Talks” with those under his purview will happen through a screen — rather than in person. Should any students on his floor end up needing to isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19, Fuelberth — like his fellow RAs — will offer virtual check-ins, according to Gregory Thompson, University Housing and Dining director of residence education.
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“There will be some further check-ins from medical folks on them as well,” Thompson said. “And then our plan is to have the RAs also do some periodic check-ins so they’re not feeling as isolated as they can, because that is certainly going to feel quite different from being up on the normal floor.”
Although the job of resident assistant — or a community adviser, as they’re called at Iowa State University — will look different this fall, Thompson said it’s just as important for community building among a group of students who, in many cases, are facing the novelty and potential loneliness of a first year away at college during a historic pandemic.
“They’re the folks that are welcoming our residents, helping them feel good about coming to Iowa, helping to be a resource for them as they navigate campus or have questions about services at the institution,” Thompson said.
‘Eyes and ears’
That, he said, is the primary RA function at Iowa. A secondary function involves health and safety, which will take on new meaning this year.
“They’re our health and safety eyes and ears on the floors,” Thompson said.
COVID-19-related policies and behavior standards that RAs will help communicate and enforce this fall include face covering requirements outside dorm rooms and guest restrictions. Thompson said RAs won’t be solely responsible for enforcing the rules — as the campus is urging personal responsibility also.
“The guest policy is going to be monitored and enforced as RAs come across violations of the policy,” he said. “As RAs are walking through their floors, and probably as roommates talk to us about situations that arise, we’ll address those situations.”
Among the university’s traditional RA responsibilities are those meant to create a “supportive and welcoming environment” for students by, among other things, being “an available and visible presence,” spending time on the dorm floor, and interacting regularly with the campus community.
RAs historically have been charged with holding one-on-one talks with residents and planning “community-building socials.”
This year, those talks will happen virtually and most social programming will shift online.
“In the first few weeks, we’ll have some RAs that might be looking to do some activities outside, which they’re going to be able to do as long as they follow the parameters that are set forth by the campus for group gatherings,” Thompson said. “But what we told our RA staff is that any activity that occurs outside has to have a virtual component, too, for students that are not comfortable being in that space.”
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RAs every fall help residents on their floors formulate roommate agreements they must sign and then refer to throughout the year if disagreements or issues pop up. Those agreements this year will touch on new and personal issues — like, for example, social distancing and mask-wearing.
“This year the roommate agreements are going to have an increased focus on some of our COVID safety precautions,” Thompson said. “We have a guest policy in place, but if I’m not comfortable having guests at all, we have to talk about that from a safety perspective. What are our expectations going to be about mask wearing and going out on campus in town?”
In a normal year, roommate switching happens relatively frequently in the residence halls, especially at the semester’s start. This year, Thompson said, change requests could surge.
“We do anticipate that we’ll be going back to revisit those roommate agreements, working with roommate pairs that maybe things shift from when they initially did it, and probably talking with some individuals, too, about if you need to split up those roommates,” he said. “We’re hopeful to be able to have spaces where we’ll be able to move those as need arises.”
In past years, RAs might have entered a student room for a variety of reasons — from enforcement needs to social bonding and relationship building. This year they’re being asked to address incidents without entering a room.
“The couple exceptions to that rule are going to be in the event of a medical emergency and in the event of facilities concern, like a pipe burst or something along those lines,” he said.
Of Iowa’s about 155 RAs this fall, only about six have backed out of their job offers. And Thompson said the university will not mandate they ever hold or participate in a face-to-face event or discussion.
At the University of Northern Iowa, RAs will be required — like the rest of the campus — to socially distance and wear face coverings and, when planning events or gatherings, comply with UNI space-occupancy mandates.
“We do anticipate that more virtual and outdoor events will take place, allowing for larger groups to socialize,” UNI spokesman Steve Schmadeke said.
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ISU’s community advisers must abide by distancing and face covering requirements, while holding virtual programming in place of large group gatherings.
All three campuses are reserving residence hall space this year for students needing to isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19 — but UI’s Thompson said those halls won’t function with traditional RAs.
“It’s a whole different situation,” he said, noting administrators are still hammering out guidance of how to navigate those pieces. “But we won’t have an RA specifically on those floors.”
That’s where the virtual check-ins with a student’s home RA will become important.
“Hopefully they’ll be used to connecting with their RA virtually in some capacity,” he said. “So if they’re uncomfortable necessarily disclosing what their medical situation is in that period (to someone else), they will still be able to connect with the RA.”
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