Dr. Renee’ Watson has been an active contributor to our continuing Campus Perspectives series. As an expansion of our previous installment, Considerations for Fall 2020, we were thrilled to have Dr. Watson share her point of view with us.
I am Dr. Renee’ T. Watson and I have the privilege of serving as the Associate Vice President for Campus Life at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We are an urban research university in the heart of the greater Las Vegas area less than 5 miles from the Las Vegas strip. We have roughly 1600 beds on campus that are operated through university housing and AVS as part of a P3 partnership.
In response to COVID-19 around the earlier part of March of this year, I was appointed to serve on the Incident Management Team (IMT hereafter) to represent Campus Life under the Division of Student Affairs. There are nine departments that fall under Campus Life with university housing being one of them. This team is led by the Interim Executive Vice President and Provost and the Emergency Command Coordinator for UNLV. The purpose of this team is to meet weekly to make high level decisions and recommendations across the university to ensure that UNLV is able to reach its mission of research, scholarship and teaching in the midst of a global pandemic. In addition, this team provides a weekly briefing report with timely information on UNLV’s campus-wide response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The content of the report is collected from senior administrators from all major divisions and units across the university, who serve on an institutional task force known as the IMT. A comprehensive report is prepared every week and issued to the university president.
During the week of spring break in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing concerns reading the reports from the IMT, out of abundance of caution in response to this horrific virus the decision was made for university housing personnel to conduct a move- out campaign for any students in university housing who could return home. The move-out campaign commenced on that Wednesday in the middle of spring break. Residents were notified by university housing personnel that they had until Saturday by 5pm to move out. Residents who were unable to go home would need to contact university housing personnel to make arrangements to stay in university housing for the remainder of the spring semester. In a matter of a few days, university housing personnel and with the help of Campus Life staff moved roughly over a thousand students out of the residence halls. Leaving roughly 175 residents to remain in the residence halls for the remainder of the spring semester. Next, was to excuse the resident assistants from their duty along with student security, which was roughly over 100 student workers that we employ. This means the residence halls would continue to be staffed by live in personnel, to include graduate assistants and non-live in employees through AVS. All student employees would continue to be paid through May 16, 2020, which was the last day of the housing contract.
Dining services would revert to take out meals along with the POD market we decided to leave open for limited hours for brunch and dinner to accommodate residents. Meanwhile, employees of AVS worked to reassign residents to rooms with single occupancy. This decision was made to ensure social distancing and to isolate residents in the event there was a confirmed case of COVID. AVS also worked with Zippy Shell Moving Company to pack the belongings of residents who were unable to return to campus to retrieve their belongings at no charge to the resident.
Once the remaining residents were settled, university housing implemented a case manager model to care for students. Residence Life Coordinators were assigned a certain number of residents to conduct welfare checks. Under this model, Residence Life Coordinator responsibilities consisted of conducting lock outs, trouble-shooting any maintenance requests, conducting rounds, and remaining on-call.
The Student Involvement & Activities, Campus Recreational Services and Student Diversity and Social Justice Offices who fall under Campus Life swung into gear by providing a menu of virtual programs for all students to utilize as to keep them connected and engaged during this time. For instance, Campus Recreational Services offered 55 virtual fitness workouts, helpful tips and messages a week through the use of You Tube Channel and Facebook to engage all students, faculty and staff with memberships. Thereby, creating a library of a 100 plus videos for viewing pleasure. In addition, the Office of Information and Technology provided laptops for students who did not have them as part of loaner program. The Office of Information Technology also set up a computer lab that students could use to conduct their work.
During this time generosity, care and concern was shown from various communities to support the remaining residents. The director of development for student affairs created an Amazon Wish list and took to Facebook asking for colleges/ departments and families of UNLV to purchase items from the wish list that would go directly to the remaining residents. Items such as fruit drinks, toothpaste, granola bars, candy, and other snacks were placed in large goodie bags for students to pick up. Likewise, donations from the food pantry were dropped off to the residence halls to include sandwiches and drinks. In addition, the university president issued a video to let the residents know that she missed seeing them and wished them well as they persevered through the semester.
Now that all classes for the university were virtually online, and residents were faring well after being placed in rooms without a roommate with takeout options through dining services for 175 residents, planning for fall semester reentry was underway. This shift occurred during the latter part of April. Members of the IMT, was tasked to develop plans for considering what action steps would need to be taken across campus in order to resume face to face interaction in the fall semester. We would work under the direction of the governor, CDC guidelines, Southern Nevada Health District and the White House. At this point, we had determined that summer housing for sessions I and II would not be offered along with the cancellation of summer conferences, which was an additional financial loss.
For university housing this meant looking at the number of beds that we could offer in the fall by limiting to single and double occupancy for housing inventory while maintaining 90% occupancy. Then, determine how to move to a new model where singles/doubles are same price regardless of complex as to lessen the financial hardship on residents. While alternatively, have university housing personnel and AVS draft a report to show the potential financial loss if the decision was made not to assign all rooms. This meant taking into account the number of resident assistants and student security you would need to hire given the proposed housing configurations and scenarios. In addition, develop plans for having the resident assistants work the front desk as to reduce costs from having a separate team of desk workers to perform this service. Likewise, have university housing personnel and AVS set aside rooms for residents who may transmit the virus and who need to remain in isolation.
From a health and safety perspective, we had to consider would senior housing officers purchase personal protective equipment for all employees. If so, how much protective gear would be purchased and for how long? Would this protective gear be centrally funded from the university or come from the university housing budget? In addition, we had to consider what responsibility do we have for purchasing facial coverings for residents and enforcing that resident’s wear these masks and be sanctioned under the student code of conduct for failing to abide by the policy. We even discussed if university housing officers should purchase thermometers to help students self-monitor their overall health, and to help residents determine when they need to seek medical attention. In the end, we decided not to go with this option. Alternatively, Police Services has installed a COVID-19 Self-Assessment in conjunction with the Rebel Safe App for students, faculty, and staff to use which provides guidance in terms of what steps to take next when individuals do not feel well or exhibit virus symptoms.
With respect to university housing furniture, we had to consider what furniture would we remove from public spaces and lounge areas to avoid residents and guests from loitering? How would the university provide storage for the large quantity of items to store? Would this result in another university housing expense or funded centrally from the business and administration area for the university?
Senior housing officials also had to develop a plan in case live-in staff became infected with the virus. How would they maintain operations with staff members unable to work with students, their colleagues, and potentially transmitting the virus to their loved ones who reside with them in university housing?
From a facilities standpoint, we had to develop a plan for cleaning and disinfecting all spaces using Hospital Grade Health Disinfectant. In addition, be sure to use high quality air filters in public and resident rooms which are changed quarterly. Likewise, we had to ensure that Student Affairs Maintenance would be available Monday – Friday 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. to assist with work orders in Housing, Student Union, Student Recreation and Wellness, and Dining Services. In addition, provide after hours and weekend coverage via on call basis.
The Student Affairs Maintenance team would install Plexiglas sneeze guards in all public-facing and transactional spaces (front desks) while continuing to work on quotes for ordering gloves, masks, hand sanitizer/sanitizer stations for all entryways, increase cleaning and disinfecting supplies at all residence hall desks and training, and information on how to use these supplies for all staff. While the Campus Life Technology team would continue to be available to staff, students and residents remotely through June.
In a similar vein, senior housing officials worked with food services to develop a plan for cleaning and disinfecting all spaces. Installing Plexiglas/ sneeze guards in POD market area. Explore avenues to disinfect credit/debit/ID cards before and after ‘swiping’, and financially to develop a contract to review every 90 days the weekly rate to maintain food service, pay for labor, and materials in proportion to the number of residents we have.
Senior housing officials had to update the lease agreement to incorporate language that allows for flexible terms, if needed (i.e. early termination, liability for sick students, etc.). For instance, we needed to include language that clearly delineates refunds during a forced closure (when, how much, etc.). Inset an acknowledgement’ or informed consent of living with others in denser housing situation (if we return to business as usual or some form of shared room space), and a requirement to leave campus at own expense if sick.
Likewise, we updated our Community Standards when residents fail to comply and jeopardizing the Health/Safety of Self/Others. This involved reviewing the guest visitation policy to determine who can or can’t visit, who and when. In addition, consider incorporating a lock down with no guests, only guests from that building, only guests during the day, as another possible option to maintain the health and safety of our students and staff. With respect to housing accommodations work with the Disability Resource Center to describe appropriate health-related “conditions” that would result in housing accommodations (I.e., immune suppressed/compromised) and what resulting accommodations would be.
Finally, we examined staff training needs in terms of how to instruct student workers and staff to engage with residents and guests by maintaining social distancing. Due to the nature of this virus, most of the training will likely have to occur online. This presents a unique challenge to offer training through a virtual mode of learning, which is not the traditional way of training new and returning resident assistants and student security who are accustomed to a long intense week of in person training to prepare all staff to engage with residents.
In summary, there will be some areas and topics that we will have to monitor as information and direction is given to us from cabinet level administration. Furthermore, we realize that we will have to hold off on making other decisions as we continue to receive public health updates and understand the overall financial impact as a result of COVID-19. Nevertheless, I feel that UNLV university housing has done its due diligence in creating plans for every area covered here in order to safeguard our residents, staff and overall campus community. It is my hope that other colleges and universities would benefit from the topics that I’ve addressed here because the nation is looking at how all colleges and universities care for students, which is important given the litigious society that we live in. In that regard it is better for all colleges and universities to band together so that we role model best practices that will yield to student success and retention. Plus, maintain a workplace environment that values the personal health and well-being for all university employees.