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East RAs describe excessive COVID-19 rule violations, extra work, inconsistent communication as year began

As campus reopens during a pandemic, East Campus resident assistants told The Chronicle that issues with enforcement and communication, especially during the lead-up to classes, have left them feeling frustrated.

All students had to sign the Duke Compact, which outlines COVID-19 safety requirements, before returning to campus, and all members of the community—from students to the Compliance Team to RAs—have been involved in enforcement.

Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life, told The Chronicle last month that RAs have been provided various in person and “contactless” enforcement techniques, including support resources.

However, some RAs living in first-year dorms said they have felt frustrated and unprepared with Duke’s communication and enforcement of COVID-19 policies—especially throughout orientation week and at the beginning of the semester.

The Chronicle talked to three East Campus resident assistants—all of whom asked not to be named for fear of retribution—about how they feel about their roles on campus and Duke’s communication and enforcement of policies.

The first RA, who lives in a dorm on the main East quad, and the second RA, who lives in the East backyard, noted that since the start of classes, first-years have been more compliant with Compact rules—especially after seeing schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University move online. The second RA added that the University has improved its communication to RAs. 

“We’ve gotten some more clarification on what’s expected of us as RAs at this point, so I’m hopeful that things will continue to improve as we get more explicit [information] and build community on campus,” she wrote in a message to The Chronicle during the second week of classes.

The first RA added that since classes started, policies have “changed massively.” She wrote in a Sept. 2 message to The Chronicle that there is much more enforcement happening now and policies have become “a lot clearer.”

Nonetheless, there was a “very chaotic lead-up to classes starting,” according to the first RA.

‘Nonstop’ violations

The first RA said that there have been “nonstop” violations of COVID-19 rules, especially during the first few weeks of first-years being on campus.

She said there was a constant cycle of breaking up groups in the common room for having more than the maximum number of people allowed. The occupancy limit for common rooms depends on the size of the room, and only three people are allowed in a bedroom at the same time in all East Campus residence halls, Gonzalez wrote in an email. 

“I've heard other RAs say, ‘You don't want to leave your dorm room because you walk out and you're going to immediately have to start correcting people,’” the first RA said. “And it won't necessarily be stuff that is flagrant violations of the rules––it's just basic stuff, like people don't realize they shouldn't be sitting right next to each other on the quad.”

The third RA, who lives in the East backyard quad, wrote in a message that before classes began, there were East Campus parties that happened at least once every day, typically in the backyard quad.

They wrote that after Housing and Residence Life or police would tell students to disperse, students would leave, no names would be taken and the party would just “break up into small chunks and move into people’s rooms.”

The first RA recalled one large East Campus party where RAs called the resident coordinator since “it's beyond our capacity to handle that many people,” and nothing happened. The third RA noted often seeing groups of unmasked first-years leave dorm rooms with a trailing scent of alcohol behind them—but nothing changing because of contactless approaches.

Both RAs noted that they feel these contactless approaches—which include texting or calling residents, calling RCs and writing detailed incident reports in lieu of getting too close to residents—are necessary.

“It's unfair to ask anyone to go to a group of unmasked people and ask them to put their masks on,” the first RA said.

Gonzalez wrote in an email that all incidents of non-compliance, whether on campus, in residence halls or off campus, “are being taken seriously.”

The second RA said that although she is upset with first-years who are breaking Compact rules, she does understand their desire for a “normal” first year.

“This is a crazy time to be starting—freshman year is about finding your people and figuring out where you belong, and how are you supposed to do that through a computer screen? How are you supposed to feel like you belong somewhere and there isn’t anywhere to go?” she said. “But at the end of the day, we have to, as a community, decide to put the wellness and well-being of the community over individual desires.”

She added that she has not felt safe or secure on campus, worrying about getting herself or her loved ones sick. The first RA wrote in a message that she feels anxious every time she coughs because she has seen “how little some residents seem to care about the rules.”

However, she wrote that pool testing—which began the first week of classes—made her feel better. She wrote that she feels administration is taking the need to track down cases early on “quite seriously.”

‘Mixed messages,’ unclear communication

The first RA said that she felt Duke initially sent RAs “mixed messages” about how they should handle COVID-19 violations and whether or not they should write incident reports. She said that from a training video sent to RAs Aug. 15 and neighborhood meetings prior to the second week of classes, she got the impression that RAs could file incident reports but shouldn’t report students caught the first time for “minor” offenses like not wearing masks, and instead remind them to wear a mask.

She emphasized that this made enforcement difficult since there was no consistent or reliable way for RAs to track who had already been warned before. 

“No matter what Duke said about them going to get in trouble, it didn't matter because students knew they were being warned more than once, but we didn't,” she said. “It became very clear during O-Week that it wasn't working as a system, so it wasn't making it easier to enforce.”

The first RA added that during the first few weeks of the semester, instead of writing incident reports for “minor” violations, she had mostly written related incident reports for gatherings and parties that violated COVID-19 rules—which are difficult to identify names for. 

Jeanna McCullers, senior associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, wrote in an email that some reports filed via OSC’s online reporting system and/or via email provide identifying information and others do not.

“If OSC receives a report of a potential policy violation with an identified student and/or student group, then there is a follow-up conversation to discuss the allegations, policy-at-issue and sanctions, if applicable,” she wrote.

McCullers added that OSC enforcement pairs low-level, minor infractions with education and development. Repeated infractions and/or fragrant violations are handled with elevated sanctioning such as “disciplinary probation, loss of access to privileges, removal from campus, suspension, etc.”

The first RA noted that there has been a general shift in the University’s approach to RA roles and enforcement since classes began, including a Neighborhood 1 policy change by which RAs, graduate residents and HRL staff members file incident reports when residents are not wearing masks in common spaces. For a resident’s first minor COVID-19 infraction, they will have an informal talk with the RC about guidelines, she wrote in a message. 

She wrote that there is now more “up to RA discretion” and RAs are “slowly being told to report more and more as residents are expected to understand the policy better.”

The first RA added that she feels Duke’s planning did not take into account the considerable “peer pressure and social anxieties of O-Week.” She noted that RAs came to campus Aug. 6 and first-years started arriving a day later, limiting the ability for RAs to keep people safe when they were still sequestering and arriving at the same time as first-years.

Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, acknowledged the scheduling challenge, telling The Chronicle last month that there was a period of time when the Class of 2024 was “very, very unstructured” due to this year’s unprecedented move-in.

The second RA said that in the first few weeks, there was a lack of communication to RAs about enforcement. She said that RAs typically aren’t involved in the disciplinary process, but for other violations such as alcohol, RAs are at least informed about the enforcement process and what happens next. These “next steps” were not communicated to RAs for COVID-19 policy violations until more recently, she explained. 

Two of the RAs interviewed were also frustrated by new COVID-19 rules communicated to RAs after first-years were already on campus. The first RA said that RAs only found out at the end of O-Week that the limit in dorm rooms was three people, something she said Duke should have had figured out beforehand. She said that another rule Duke added—which she said should have been previously determined—is that eating is no longer allowed in common rooms.

Gonzalez wrote that HRL has been working with Student Affairs and the University at large to “develop and refine our approach around compliance and enforcement of the Duke Compact, influenced in part by the behaviors we've seen on campus these first few weeks of the semester.” 

He added that policy changes so far have been due to HRL “watching and listening” for opportunities to collectively improve since RAs and students returned to campus.

He assured that HRL would continue to “refine and clarify” where possible, and is “open to this ongoing process throughout the year.”

“In response, we have been clarifying and adjusting our protocols for residential staff, as well as providing specific information around some of the ‘what ifs’ of life in the residence halls, including occupancy numbers for bedrooms and whether one can eat a meal in the common room,” Gonzalez wrote. “Our hope is that this further clarification will be helpful in making sure we are all abiding by the spirit and expectations of the Compact.”

Burnt out and overworked

The first and third RA said that they and other RAs feel burnt out and overworked, working all the time even when not on call.

The first RA said that normally, RAs do one round on call in rotation. During O-Week, she said there were two RAs on call every night doing two rounds, which did nothing for actually getting students to follow the policy. It just created “more jobs without any enforcement power,” she said.

Gonzalez confirmed in an email that RAs did additional rounds during move-in week. As classes began, he wrote, on-call schedules returned to their “standard expectations.” He added that on-call hours on weekends have been “reduced significantly” from last year. 

He emphasized that one of HRL’s “non-negotiables in making policy and protocol decisions” is safeguarding the health and safety of residential staff and other campus community members. 

The third RA wrote that even though HRL has decreased the number of rounds since classes began, they are “still working” and being alert for incidents even when not on call. They wrote that they work around five to seven more hours a week than they did last year—which “doesn’t sound like much but as a student that’s a lot more than I signed on for,” they wrote.

The first RA added that she feels she can never take a break and that it has been an “ordeal” to walk to the bus stop or leave the residence hall because she knows she’ll see “people outside not social distancing.”

“As the residents have adjusted more to the new rules, that’s slightly improved, but it’s still a pretty constant feeling of needing to be vigilant,” she wrote in a message to The Chronicle. “I think the biggest issue with it is that with normal rule violations, if you miss it, it only affects the students involved. Now, it could affect the entire community, so you really need to be constantly working it seems.”

The second RA added in a message that although they all signed up to do this job, “RAs are still people and still students.”

Gonzalez did not directly respond to a question asking whether RAs are working more than in the past. 

McMahon told The Chronicle last month that the University is trying to reduce RA responsibilities through an increased presence of RCs and graduate assistants and having the Compliance Team step in to clear gatherings. 

‘More like a cop than an RA’

Ultimately, the second RA said that the RA position is about building trust and community with and among residents. She said that she feels that the entire situation has negatively impacted her relationship with residents. She said she feels “more like a cop than an RA,” which is not what she signed up for.

The first RA said that she worries about residents’ relationships with each other. Some first-years are “very committed” to following the rules, while others are not as committed, and it’s important to take some pressure off of them so they don’t have to be “rule-enforcers” and develop antagonistic relationships with other first-years, she said.

Like the second RA, she noted that RAs are usually not “immediately enforcing rules” and get a chance to talk to people and build trust.

“You want [residents] to trust you; you don't want it to become a solely rule-enforcer relationship,” she said. “It doesn't feel like you're more in a peer position anymore; it feels like you're in a more powerful position over them than you want to be in.”

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