Living in congregate housing during a pandemic presents unprecedented challenges, many of which resident assistants say go far beyond their typical duties.
Foster Quadrangle resident assistant Sophie Trinkle knows exactly what to do when residents come to her with roommate conflicts. After all, it is part of her job description.
But a new resident approached her in January with roommate concerns Trinkle was unable to solve with the mediation techniques she learned during her training.
The resident’s roommate was unvaccinated, COVID-19 positive and refused to leave the dorm to quarantine.
“I don't know what to do in this situation,” Trinkle said. “People that aren’t going to do what they’re supposed to do, you have to call them out. It’s super uncomfortable. I feel like I shouldn’t be doing that, IU should take over that responsibility.”
Without mandatory IU COVID-19 testing, some resident assistants worry students are choosing not to get tested even when exposed to COVID-19 or symptomatic. Trinkle said the increased availability of at-home COVID-19 tests also creates the possibility residents can refuse to report positive test results to IU to avoid being sent to quarantine housing in Ashton Residence Center.
Trinkle said she often felt out of the loop regarding IU’s COVID-19 information and policy changes, hindering her ability to communicate factual and essential health information to her residents.
Trinkle did not know she lived with unvaccinated residents because she thought IU required the COVID-19 vaccine. As of March 3, 94.8% of students enrolled at IU-Bloomington are fully vaccinated, according to the IU COVID-19 Dashboard. IU announced in May 2021 the COVID-19 vaccine is required for all students, faculty and staff, but there are a number of exemptions students can apply for to remain unvaccinated.
According to IU’s website, current exemptions include medical and religious exemptions, as well as an exemption for students whose curriculum is entirely online. IU added an ethical exemption July 2021 but removed it as an option in November. However, people who already claimed an ethical exemption in that time period are still excluded from the vaccine requirement.
“I just assumed that everybody was vaccinated,” Trinkle said. “Turns out, I'm living with unvaccinated people and now when they're testing positive, they're not wearing their mask around me.”
Unlike last year when resident assistants wrote up students for large gatherings or not wearing masks, Trinkle said she has little ability to enforce COVID-19 protocols. She does not want students to face disciplinary action, but said IU fails to equip resident assistants with sufficient tools to enforce rules meant to keep residents safe.
“I don't feel empowered in my role at all, which is unfortunate,” Trinkle said.
While Trinkle wants to protect her residents from COVID-19, she does not want to risk her own health to do so. Residents can now use the askRPS form to request COVID-19 testing kits be delivered to their rooms. Resident assistants are responsible for delivering the kits, meaning Trinkle and her colleagues must go to the rooms of residents who might have COVID-19.
After providing the saliva sample, students are supposed to deliver the test to one of the designated drop-off locations, according to IU’s website. However, Trinkle said some residents have attempted to hand in their saliva samples at the front desk, which forces resident assistants to interact with symptomatic students and their saliva.
“I love that residents have the option to get a test super easily, but I wish maybe they could just go and grab it from a secure location where they don't have to interact with anybody,” Trinkle said.
IU Chief Health Officer Aaron Carroll said drop-off testing allows for safe mass symptomatic testing, as it does not require large groups of people to gather indoors for their test. During the 2020-21 school year, IU conducted mandatory asymptomatic testing in venues such as President’s Hall, the IU Auditorium and Memorial Stadium. However, with demand shifting to symptomatic testing, Carroll said it would not be safe for students experiencing symptoms to congregate at testing sites.
“This was not a problem last year when the vast majority of our testing was asymptomatic, but this year we saw significantly increased symptomatic testing,” Carroll said. “It allows us to basically have almost unlimited symptomatic tests.”
Carroll said clear communication of IU’s resources can help resident assistants protect their residents from COVID-19.
“As we start to move into mask optional, it's not a good place for them to constantly be mask police,” Carroll said. “That doesn't engender a lot of honesty and camaraderie, and probably isn't doing that much incremental benefit at this point.
Masks became optional in indoor areas around campus March 4. Carroll said IU will continue to evaluate precautions in response to the severity of COVID-19 on campus at the time.
Carroll said easing precautions when cases decrease gives people a break, preventing COVID-19 burnout and helping people stay on board with IU’s COVID-19 prevention approach.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s health emergency and the Monroe County mask mandate expired March 4.
“As I've said many times of the pandemic, we are likely safer than the vast majority of Indiana,” Carroll said. “We have all of the safety measures I've put in so there's no real reason for us to be the last organization to remove masks.”
In response to resident assistant concerns about students not reporting positive tests, Carroll said he did not believe this was common because many professors require proof of a positive test submitted through IU to be excused from class. He said the larger concern is students choosing to forgo testing.
“People who are just going to choose to do the wrong thing, and I don't think there are a lot of them, why would they even bother to get tested?” Carroll said. “They’re just going to do what they want to do.”
Foster resident assistant Gabi Rasdall said some students avoid getting tested altogether because they do not want to quarantine in Ashton.
“That’s everything that anyone talks about — ‘If I have COVID, I don’t want to go to Ashton,’” Rasdall said. “It’s appreciated that there is an option to have quarantine housing so you don’t have to go home and expose your family, but I think aspects of it are a little bit dangerous.”
Rasdall said she felt safe living in the dorms when people honestly followed IU’s COVID-19 protocol, but she believes there is some reluctance among residents to report positive tests. To combat this, Rasdall informed her residents about IU’s anonymous COVID-19 reporting form.
The conditions inside Ashton create two issues, Rasdall said: students inside Ashton deal with deteriorating mental health while students outside Ashton avoid COVID-19 testing even when it may be necessary.
Rasdall said she wants to foster a sense of community similar to the one she experienced when living in the dorms before the pandemic began. Encouraging students to report one another does not create community, but Rasdall said it is difficult to balance keeping students safe from COVID-19 with the rest of her resident assistant duties.
“Being an RA has been difficult with COVID,” Rasdall said. “We're always making all these new decisions and new things are always thrown at us, like these home tests. We just kind of have to roll with it. We're also trying to protect ourselves from COVID.”
Rasdall said she knows students need to report positive tests to IU and quarantine outside of congregate living in order to prevent outbreaks, but said she could understand why students do not want to stay in Ashton.
“Staying in Ashton is just not very conducive towards a healthy mental state,” Rasdall said.
IU freshman Lindsey Sibell spent three days in Ashton, but relocated to a hotel after being unable to sleep, experiencing deteriorating mental health and feeling unsafe.
“If I had known how terrible Ashton was I would have just called my parents right away and said ‘Come get me’, because it was just terrible,” Sibell said.
Sibell’s mother drove from Illinois to Bloomington to take Sibell to a hotel room for the rest of her quarantine period. Sibell said her friends at other universities were sent to hotel rooms provided by the school to quarantine.
Sibell spent two nights in Ashton in late January and said the thin walls, concrete floors and lack of food options fitting her dietary restrictions were disheartening, but she ultimately left because she felt unsafe.
Sibell said she called the Ashton desk multiple times to report other students with COVID-19 walking around unmasked. Each time, Sibell said she was told to be patient.
“I definitely feel there’s a reason people try to avoid going,” Sibell said. “I did not feel safe for a second there.”