4 considerations for resuming residential life this academic year

Expert Insight

4 considerations for resuming residential life this academic year

With the fall semester quickly approaching, many institutions are weighing how to facilitate safe, modified in-person campus operations. Residence halls—a cornerstone of socialization for most students—pose some of the greatest challenges for resuming campus life. If your leadership team is considering bringing residential students back to campus, here are four considerations to think about now. ­

Formulate a process for students to safely retrieve or move belongings left behind.

The urgent and early response to COVID-19 forced students to leave campus in as little as 48 hours. As a result, many left behind belongings that must be moved before students return to campus in the fall. To prepare for a smooth move-in process, identify which process of retrieval is best for your student body.

  • Institutions allow students to return to campus in staggered groups to move belongings off campus or to their newly assigned room. For example, Fairfield University in Connecticut is allowing students to return for their belongings between May 7th and May 29th. Before students arrive, assign a time for retrieval to avoid overcrowding, and provide a list of approved moving and storage companies.
  • Institutions pack and ship belongings to students’ permanent residences. If this is the case, clearly communicate who will incur any associated costs and what will happen to unclaimed items

Balance capacity aspirations with safety restrictions.

Given social distancing requirements, institutions must reconfigure room assignments and extend the move-in time frame. Residence hall occupancy, according to the American College Health Association, should be a “single resident per room and ideally per bathroom.” Russell Sage College, for example, has guaranteed single rooms for all residential students at no extra cost.

Given space constraints, however, some institutions are introducing less stringent requirements. Guidelines from the Higher Education Subcommittee of the Reopen Connecticut Task Force allow more than one occupant per dormitory room by treating roommates and suitemates as family units. These units are expected to remain socially distant from other residents outside their room.

If widespread and accurate antibody testing becomes available and students are tested, those with known immunity can be housed together while those with no known immunity are assigned to singles. That said, no matter the circumstances, students with underlying health conditions should be housed in individual rooms. 

Institutions like UC San Diego and University of Arizona have made plans to test their residential student population. On May 11, 5,000 UC San Diego students who have remained on campus were granted access to self-administered nasal swab tests as part of an initial phase for the institutions “Return to Learn” program. If successful, the institution plans to test all 65,000 students, faculty and staff on a monthly basis beginning in September. At the end of April, Arizona began state-wide anti-body testing with the help of the university, first testing healthcare workers and then a portion of the community within the university’s county, including University of Arizona residential students. Plans are being finalized to provide testing to the university’s 45,000 students and 15,000 employees with the start of the academic year.

If on-campus buildings will not allow for proper social distancing, institutions should consider off-campus housing options like local hotels and apartments. Pomona College and Claremont McKenna­ College, for example, have entered into lease agreements with off-campus apartment complexes.

Because shared restrooms are usually cramped and have many high-touch areas (door knobs, faucets, etc.), they are one of the riskiest spaces for exposure. In residence halls with community restrooms, increase the frequency of disinfection and limit the number of students with access (As of the date of publication, few organizations have suggested or committed to concrete restrictions around restrooms.). Consider assigning each student to a shower using every other stall and shutting off the water to every other sink. 

Establish sufficient quarantine space.

It is critical for institutions to set aside isolation space where infected students have access to a private bathroom, kitchen, and, if possible, laundry facilities. Quarantine space could be within apartment or suite style rooms, hotels, or even mobile trailers. Ideally, rooms will be stocked with basic toiletries, a thermometer, and hand sanitizer and soap. Signage should denote restricted access but should not state the specific reason. Consider signs that say “Authorized Personnel Only” to avoid FERPA/HIPAA violations.

According to an April 2020 survey conducted by the Association of College and University Housing Officers, institutions plan to set aside 40 beds on average for quarantine. For larger schools with more than 7,500 beds, the median was over 100.

Brainstorm mitigation strategies to encourage social distancing and create the safest possible environment.

Whether or not students have roommates within residence halls, they should be expected to remain socially distant from other occupants in all shared spaces. Consider the following strategies to encourage social distancing and reduce the risk of infection. These strategies represent a sampling of recommendations, rather than an exhaustive list.

Modify the physical space

  • Ensure proper ventilation. CDC recommendations can be found here.
  • Establish one-way hallways, entrances, and exits.
  • Rearrange or remove furniture in common areas.
  • Install plexiglass barriers at front desks.

Nudge prevention strategies

  • Place signage or play videos to promote prevention strategies like hand washing, physical distancing, and mask wearing. CDC resources can be found here.
  • Provide hand sanitizer stations at entryways and in common areas.

Establish enhanced safety and cleaning standards

  • Require students and staff to wear protective face coverings in all common spaces.
  • Restrict access to residents and essential staff.
  • Create a plan for increased cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas, restrooms, and common spaces.

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