Due to online semester, resident assistants will not receive housing or stipend
After AU canceled on-campus housing for all students, RAs were left without alternative plans
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily.
After American University’s announcement in late July that it will be conducting a fully online fall semester with no residential experience, resident assistants were left without housing and an income, originally provided by the University.
Without any students living on campus, with the exception of those who receive emergency housing, the RA role was no longer needed, according to what juniors PJ Chandra and Lauren Mitchell said they were told at a meeting that took place on the Monday after the announcement was made.
“One of the important jobs of an RA is to respond to emergency situations, and that can include a phone call that someone is having difficulty breathing,” AU alumus and former RA Jonah Wolff said, prior to AU going fully online. “Right now, if it is a phone call about someone having difficulty breathing, well there’s a high probability that what’s happening is that they’re being asked to walk into a room and they might be exposed to COVID-19.”
The duties of an RA typically involve facilitating interpersonal relationships between residents on their floor, hosting community-building events and meetings, and conducting room and floor checks.
However, before the reversal of AU’s original fall plan, which included a mixture of online and in-person classes, Wolff and others were worried that RAs were going to be treated as frontline workers, without being fully trained or prepared to handle potentially infected students.
Senior Crissy Sak, who was an RA last year, decided to quit the position in fear that they would be exposed to the coronavirus due to the University not having a proper plan in place, along with people not following the guidelines.
“My family, a lot of them are immunocompromised, and so if anything were to happen, like the dorms were to close again like earlier this year and I would have to fly back, then that would not just be costly in terms of health, but costly in terms of money,” Sak said.
Ashley Boltrushek, senior associate director for Residence Life, said that the RA role would have been changed drastically if they returned. She said community building events would have been made virtual.
“There would have been very little that the RAs would have responded to in-person,” Boltrushek said, noting that they still would have conducted rounds with face coverings provided by the University. “If it were an emergency, our Community Director team, who is our primary response team, would have responded in-person to situations as it was warranted based on medical or mental health concerns.”
After the University made the decision to cancel housing for all students, including first-years, some RAs said they were glad that the University was taking the health and safety of its students seriously, but they wished that the school would have considered giving RAs an alternative plan.
Chandra was supposed to be an RA in the Frequency Apartments in Tenleytown, which AU leases apartments from. He said that RAs had no indication that the University had plans to reverse its on-campus housing policies. It was only after Mayor Muriel Bowser’s announcement of a 14-day self-quarantine for those from high-risk states that Chandra thought that the University may change its plans.
“I was pretty pissed,” Chandra said, after making no backup living arrangements. “At the end of the day, especially for someone in the Frequency, which is an apartment building, like it isn’t like Letts or Anderson halls where it is a dorm and you share bathrooms; we had our own apartment, and we could have signed a waiver.”
Mitchell, who was supposed to be an RA in Anderson Hall, said that she also did not make any backup plans, especially since part of being an RA is receiving subsidized housing. She said that because renting an apartment in D.C. is expensive, her only backup plan was to stay home in Connecticut for the semester.
“I didn’t know any RA that was trying to find an apartment in case we went all online and there was no housing,” Mitchell said, adding that she hopes that emergency housing is more flexible for RAs who are in need of housing.
The application for emergency housing opened on the same day the University announced the cancellation of on-campus housing, and it closed on Aug. 14. Director of Housing Chris Silva said 28 students received emergency housing and will live in the Frequency. He said no one student was given priority, as each student is evaluated on individual circumstances.
“It is difficult to define who is the student [who fits the requirements] because students could be in different situations and scenarios but it is really, as the word that defines emergency, somebody who has not been able to secure safe and good quality housing for them to be a student in the fall semester,” Silva said.
Boltrushek said Housing and Residence Life staff will be monitoring students who received emergency housing, and all RA positions are paused for the fall. Based on whether or not on-campus housing resumes in the spring and how many students will be allowed in residence halls, students who were supposed to be RAs this fall may be able to reconsider their position for the spring.
“Essentially, if a staff member says that they are not interested in coming back for the spring because of this other situation or a commitment to the people they are sharing a lease with, we are not going to hold that negatively against them,” Boltrushek said.
While AU RAs would have been more essential this semester to get residents to follow physical distancing guidelines, they would have also needed to think of more innovative ways to build communities on their floors, since residents would not have been able to interact as they normally would.
Junior Dara Wax, who was supposed to be an RA in Letts Hall, said that she feels bad for freshmen who will not have the same residential experience as students in years past.
“They’re coming off a senior year that was cut short by a pandemic and it is dragged into their first year of college, and it is deeply unfortunate that they are unable to truly experience the way every other 18- or 19-year-old did,” Wax said.
Mitchell said she wishes that the University came up with a way that RAs could perform their role virtually and still receive a stipend, which many RAs use as part of their income. She said that living on a floor with different students is the first taste of the AU community, so still having virtual events would have been helpful for students to make friends with those who they were going to live with.
“If you had taken all of the freshmen that were supposed to be on Anderson fourth floor and you say, ‘Hey, I know you guys aren’t living on campus this year, but here are some people you can talk to,’” Mitchell said.
Boltrushek said the Housing and Residence Life team does not plan on hosting its own virtual programming for students, as they are not paying RAs, but they will partner with programs such as the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and AUx.
“There is something that could feel really, sort of, not that great about saying, ‘We know you can’t have it anymore and this space isn’t reserved for you in that way anymore, but let’s engage you as a community anyway,’” Boltrushek said.