University residence halls are usually the social hub for students. Music can be heard throughout the buildings, friends are studying together in the common areas and the elevator chimes between floors as scholars walk to and from classes throughout the day.
Gone are the days of hustle and bustle on campus at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. COVID-19 precautions have limited campus activity in the name of safety, with entire offices working remotely from campus, and other employees being on a rotation; alternating when they are physically on campus versus working from home.
Sophomore Briana Graham remembers how full of life campus was last year.
“We had so many events going, we had so many people just sitting in the foyer of the cafeteria with tables set up, encouraging people to interact. Being on campus gave you that opportunity to see what our school is all about! Due to it being so empty, many people are not able to see our school’s full potential,” Graham said.
The emptiness of campus has had an impact on the students who live here. Dining hours have been shortened, access to the library has decreased as entire floors and study rooms have closed, health and wellness visits are mostly virtual. Aside from trying to make life during a pandemic work, students who live on campus have had to figure out how to be safe and navigate a drastically changed environment.
That adjustment began on day one. Move-in day is usually a large event crowded with volunteers from campus organizations and eager students ready to get into their rooms and get settled. Parents and family members embrace their students and bid them a good semester in group hugs.
2020 move-in day was actually a move-in week, and students were only able to bring two people to help them move in. They signed up for an arrival time based on which residence hall they would be occupying, and had to pass an online COVID-19 screening and temperature check to begin moving in.
The experience of the day was condensed into two-hour appointments filled with masks and face shields amongst Resident Assistants, and the smell of disinfectant spray and bleach wafted through the halls as students found their new rooms and wanted to assure themselves that everything was clean.
Sophomore Caroline Holt, felt rushed during the process.
“Move-in day this year in a way was harder than my freshman year,” Holt said. “My parents had to leave by 5 and I was not even close to being completed with my room when they had to leave.”
Cleaning shared spaces was a challenge for Holt and her roommates.
“It was way more stressful as well because our shared spaces and bathrooms were not clean at all,” Holt said. “We had some things left in our apartment from the students before us, like socks in the dryer and even a knife in one of the cabinets by the sink. I was really hoping that campus would keep their word that they would have our apartment clean. But when we were finding stuff that belonged to the [residents] before us, it showed me that campus didn’t clean like they said they would. My mom actually sanitized both bathrooms along with my other roommate’s mom.”
The difficulty of roommates being exposed to COVID-19 also presented a problem. Roommates needed to keep open and honest communication with each other so they knew if they needed to go get tested or not.
West Hall, which houses freshmen, mitigated this problem by assigning one person per room, when each room is usually occupied by two students. Campus Living trained RAs for weeks before the arrival of students. They met in mixed environments, both in person and online, in order to learn the new protocols and paperwork. The new rules were hammered into their brains. Outside visitors who do not live on campus are not allowed in the residence halls. Masks must be worn at all times outside of each person’s room. Only two people are allowed to ride the elevator at once. Specific rooms are purposely left empty for students who need to quarantine. Meals must be delivered to students in quarantine.
The ‘normal’ tasks of an RA became increasingly harder. They usually have a floor meeting during the first week of classes in order to establish rapport with their residents and give the building a sense of home and companionship. These floor meetings continue through the semester as necessary. With COVID-19, these mandatory meetings were held over Zoom, with minimal attendance. RAs host programs each month in order to continue the feeling of camaraderie amongst their residents. Programs that brought students together and created new friendships are now held over Zoom, where it’s difficult to connect with specific individuals and everything becomes much more group-oriented.
“We don’t get to have in person programs or do room occupancy checks. A lot of people aren’t moving in and out of the residence halls like they used to, so it’s difficult to form relationships with residents,” said Caleb McConnell, a South Hall RA.
Participation is decreasing. Students are not able to build that network around them that they need to be successful. Does this affect their performance in class? Their involvement on campus? How do they build meaningful relationships with peers through a computer screen? Freshmen who live in West Hall are not able to make use of common areas, which includes a kitchen. So far, the Office of Campus Living’s efforts have paid off. While other universities saw case numbers soar into the hundreds, the University of Arkansas Little Rock has reported a total of less than 200 on-campus student cases since March of 2020.
The conditions that have changed residence hall life might not be ideal, but they are serving their purpose. With the university wanting to return to normal in the upcoming fall semester and wanting more in-person events, students are left wondering how many more times they will have to adjust.