The fate of the fall semester relies on JMU’s students and their ability to follow mask and social distancing guidelines — a statement made regularly by the university’s leadership since the plan to hold in-person classes was announced July 7.
For residence halls, buildings of concentrated population and, usually, high socialization, residents complying to new rules and procedures aiming to mitigate the pandemic is essential, Kevin Meaney, director of residence life, said.
“We need their cooperation,” Meaney said. “We can’t do this without them. So, we want them on our team, not hiding from us.”
Students living in on-campus dorms will experience a different experience than in past years. Residents are asked to wear a mask at all times inside residence halls, except for when they’re in their own rooms or showering, brushing their teeth or shaving in shared bathrooms, Meaney said.
Common areas and bathrooms will be cleaned twice a day instead of once a week, Meaney said, and housekeeping staff will remain in the residence halls to regularly clean and disinfect high-traffic surfaces like doorknobs and sinks.
Social distancing is encouraged, and Meaney said ORL staff have changed common rooms to reflect that — some lounge furniture was removed, and the allowed occupancy of common rooms was decreased to 50% capacity. Unlike previous years, no rooms will be converted to triples to handle a larger freshman class. And, to prevent contamination between halls, students aren’t allowed to have outside guests within the building, Meaney said. This policy includes students who live in other residence halls on campus.
The new policies have been adapted by the university from state guidelines to best fit each area of residence halls, Adam Meyers, hall director of Wampler Hall, said. Hall directors received the new policies and procedures in mid-July in an email from Hugh Brown, the associate director of community development.
RAs and residents will be educated in the state guidelines by ORL staff to ensure their health and safety, and training for RAs has been “refram[ed] in the COVID[-19] world,” Addi Boyer, a senior psychology major who will be a RA in Hillside Hall, said. She said that every element of RA training has now added instructions about the procedures during the pandemic.
“Residence Life, in general, has very clear expectations for students in residence halls,” Boyer said. “ … [students are] adults, and I trust that they can make the right decisions.”
There will be no punitive system to enforce these new policies and procedures for students. Rather, Meaney said he hopes that students understand the need to comply with these procedures for their own safety and the ability for the campus to remain open.
“We don’t want to be unreasonable by any means about reminding people,” Meaney said. “If you’re going to be part of a community, you have to hold each other accountable.”
If cases of COVID-19 do occur, Meaney said that ORL has designated Oak and Willow Halls as quarantine and isolation centers to house students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected to be carrying the virus. If there’s overflow, local hotels have agreed to house quarantined and isolated students, Meaney said.
Freshman move-in will also look different this year, Meaney said, students will arrive over a four-day period in 12 time blocks and will only be allowed two people to help them move in. Additionally, the volunteers that usually eased move-in for freshmen can’t help this year to limit the number of people interacting during move-in.
Meyers said that in addition to making sure fewer people will be present during move-in, ORL has created a system of contactless room key and JACard transfer. Additionally, more responsibility has been placed on RAs while the halls prepare for move-in, including getting rooms cleaned and ready for their new residents.
The bulk of enforcement responsibilities for the new policies will fall on RAs, who’ve now received training about residence hall procedures during a pandemic alongside their usual training like workshops on community building, Caroline Shaffer, a sophomore special education major who will be a RA in Eagle Hall, said.
Many RAs have voiced their opinions and have said they’re nervous to be the front lines of enforcing the mask and social distancing policies, but training from ORL has helped to ease the fear of that confrontation with residents, Boyer said.
“I personally, as an RA, don’t want to be ‘mask police,’” Boyer said. “But it’s definitely up to everyone to make sure we’re able to stay.”
Shaffer and Boyer both had hesitations when they learned that the university was returning for an in-person fall semester, but they said they were excited to return to campus as RAs after doubts that they’d be able to fill their positions in the fall. Boyer will be returning for her second year as an RA, and she said she’s looking forward to helping her residents transition to college despite the restrictions created by the pandemic.
Myles Perdue, a sophomore architectural design major who will be a RA in the Grace St. Apartments, said he was nervous to return to campus before he received more information about the new safety guidelines. Before arriving, Perdue said he stocked up on antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and masks to ensure he was able to do his job to the best of his ability.
“I saw the precautions that JMU was taking and I kinda felt a little better about the situation,” Perdue said. “It’s going to be different, and I think that’s just how we have to see it.”
One major difference from previous years is that RAs plan to shift many of their hall activities online with Zoom meetings, so students can join without feeling uncomfortable about group gatherings. Boyer said that many of her hall activities will happen over Zoom or with the option to use Zoom while others can attend with masks.
These precautions, Boyer said, were just as much for her own peace of mind as her residents’. Shaffer fears what would happen if campus closed and she returned to her family unknowingly infected with COVID-19 after living in a hall with roughly 25 residents, though she said she believes JMU and ORL are doing everything they can to keep residents safe.
“It’s scary to think I’m putting my health somewhat at risk,” Shaffer said.
Meyers said that programming, or activities organized by ORL, is a large part of what creates a sense of community on campus and that switching to virtual programming was a natural transition for residence halls.
“It’s enabling us to build a community rather than preventing us from building a community,” Meyers said.
Contact Jamie McEachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.