Residential Life's COVID-19 IsoQ Program: Beginnings Through Today
Updated: 7 days ago
On March 6, 2020 at 8:01am, the University of Washington officially became the first U.S. university to go remote as it pivoted its plan for classes going into the end of Winter Quarter. An email from President Ana Mari Cauce informed students, faculty, and staff that classes would no longer meet in person starting Monday March 9th although no decision had been made concerning the Spring Quarter. As she noted in her email:
“Evolving public health recommendations indicate our best course of action is to take additional social-distancing steps to support the region’s efforts against this outbreak and conclude this quarter in an orderly and cohesive way for you and your instructors.”
At that time, I was a TA for Philosophy 242 Introduction to Medical Ethics and the pivot to an online format had several immediate impacts both for myself and for other folks working and studying at the University of Washington. The first immediate impact not surprisingly involved my 8:30am quiz section which met in Savery 157. In fact, when I started highlighting the “last day” in-class activity I had planned for the following week, it was my students who informed me that an email had gone out, there wouldn't be any additional in-person classes that quarter, and that, subsequently, I would need to make a few pivots. A quick run upstairs for course evaluations and one final reflection in their individual class folders meant I was able to salvage some of what I had planned, but teaching and classes were not the only space where the university would soon have to make pivots and develop a response to the pending COVID-19 epidemic.
Image 1 and 2: The online classroom that I created on Gathertown following the pivot to online learning in 2020
In addition to being a TA for the Department of Philosophy, I was also working in Mercer Court as a Community Assistant for Residential Life in our Housing and Food Services (HFS) department. In that position, I directly supported ~70 graduate and professional students who lived in the 280 person apartment community while seeking their various degrees and certifications. At the time President Cauce’s email went out, the university had not yet encountered any confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the 10,000 on-campus residential population. However, part of working in Residential Life involves planning for emergencies, proactively designing programmatic responses when possible, and being able to furnish creative solutions when hiccups or surprises arrive at one's front door.
While it has been almost three years to the day since the university started making explicit pivots in response to the pandemic, the background work, labor, planning, pivots, hours, and dedication that went and continues to go into formulating and implementing a response to the pandemic is not necessarily something folks may have had an opportunity to know about. The purpose of this post is to highlight some elements of HFS’ and Residential Life’s response to COVID-19 and to unpack how the current Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program operates within the context of on-campus housing. In forming this narrative, readers will find stories and perspectives that are not necessarily my own. While I am currently the COVID-19 Program Manager, many other persons were involved in creating, supporting, and nurturing the program over the last three years. While I will be adding in some area specific knowledge and perspective, I believe it is through the narratives and experiences of my interlocutors that we can come to a better understanding of where we started, the challenges that arose along the way, and the lessons we can carry forward as we continue to respond and shift to an ever changing pandemic. To that end, it seems best to start from the beginning and the first known residential case at UW.
The Beginning- March-June 2020
As noted above, the university announced a shift to online classes and exams on March 6, 2020 which happened to be a Friday. Even though it was the end of the week, the response by HFS and Residential Life was swift given that there were bound to be questions and concerns from both residents and their families. By 2:30pm that day all Student Leaders (CAs, RAs, etc.) had been given information on how to triage reports of sick residents, how to support residents who may be concerned about someone else’s health status including increased impacts for students of Asian decent, and how to answer the most likely and frequent questions that could arise from students and their families. More broadly, by 5:00pm all on-campus residents had received information from HFS with resources for staying up-to-date on any changes via the activation of HFS’ Suspended Operations page. On Thursday March 12, 2020 a new communication went out to persons living and working in Mercer Court: a resident had tested positive for COVID-19.
Image 3: Mercer Court Apartments at the University of Washington
While the resident in question was doing well and isolating at home, this information rippled through the Mercer Court student population quickly given that this was the first confirmed residential case at UW. A few hours after being shared with persons working or living at the complex, the information was shared more broadly with the UW Community via an email from the UW Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases Chair Dr.Gottlieb. This in turn led to a broader influx of questions, concerns, and check-in emails both to the CAs and professional staff members working at Mercer Court and those working more broadly within HFS. While a number of students had already opted to go home given the shift to online learning and the upcoming spring break, a significant number of students remained on campus and wanted to know what measures were being taken to keep them, and their roommates, safe. Given the robust uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 at the time, an immediate response by HFS and Residential Life was to implement a self-isolation protocol for any residents who were known close-contacts with someone who had tested positive (this would later be reclassified as self-quarantining to better differentiate between close contacts and those who had tested positive for COVID-19 and were required to isolate). What this protocol meant, however, was initially a creative adventure in problem solving within existing frameworks and structures and trying new things to fill in any gaps.
One of the folks I interviewed, Cohleen Villejo Banks, was an office assistant in the Residential Life Suite at Terry Hall during this time and shared her experience supporting the first resident to self-isolate in Mercer Court. While working in the office, the Director of Residential Life Chris Jaehne had popped his head out of his office and made a somewhat strange request. As Villejo Banks shared in our interview, “he asked me if I would take his card, go to the District Market (DM), and grab a lot of fruit.” After grabbing an assortment of fruits from the DM such as berries and oranges, Villejo Banks took her haul back to the Director Jaehne in a brown paper DM bag. As Villejo Banks and others would find out later, Director Jaehne was delivering food items to a resident who was self-isolating here at UW. In this instance, the resident was a roommate of the resident who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was also in Mercer Court (and both happened to be my residents). Of course, Director Jaehne would not be available to deliver all the meals to this resident and any other residents who may opt to self-isolate, so a new plan and protocol was designed from scratch by Assistant Director Kirsten Espiritu for residents self-isolating in Mercer Court.
Starting on March 13,2020, the CAs of Mercer Court were looped in to do a trial run of what would eventually evolve into our Isolation/Quarantine Get Well Meal delivery program for the next three years. In coordination with dining and the desks, the graduate CA team demonstrated that it was possible to keep students fed while maintaining both social distance and robust access to food options. After placing an order with dinning, meals were delivered to Lander Regional Desk. Once at the desk, a Desk Services Representative (DSR) or Lead would call the RA/CA on Call phone to let us know that a meal was ready for delivery and we would drop the meal off at the resident’s door. That is not to say that the initial steps did not have opportunities for growth of course–for example, the meals were initially delivered on trays and there was no protocol for how to safely get the trays back to dining after they had been dropped off. As such, Espiritu was able to work with dining to pivot to bags which could then be recycled via an adapted trash/recycle pickup agreement with the facilities teams. While there are a number of other elements that I will highlight in the next section about the specific development of the Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program, what this example demonstrates is that, from the start, Residential Life sought to balance the needs of the residents with the safety of their community members and was able to utilize elements from existing structures to meet those needs.
Outside of HFS, March 13, 2020 also marked a turning point for the State of Washington. As noted in an announcement to the university, Governor Inslee had instituted “... new measures requiring the University of Washington, and all higher education institutions in the state, to discontinue in-person instruction on our campuses through April 24.” While there was some initial hope that things would “return to normal” for the Spring quarter and that COVID-19 would make a brief appearance and a hopefully quick retreat, it was a fleeting hope. On March 18, 2020 President Cauce solidified the move to a virtual and remote learning quarter.
As with all announcements, the implications for this move did not stop at academics. Many, though not all, residents and Student Leaders were faced with the question of whether to remain on campus for an entire remote quarter or to move back home early. I say “though not all” since for many international students, students living with family members who were immunocompromised, or students with complex home dynamics, going home was not an option. On the Student Leader side of things, Student Leaders were allowed to step away from the position with an option of returning in a future quarter if they choose to do so. On the resident side of things, residents were allowed to vacate early without an early termination fee, were automatically released from spring quarter charges to “maintain a level of financial fairness” (Gana) given extant circumstances, and HFS utilized an extended move timeline to account for travel delays. In an effort to support local healthcare workers, students who were moving out were also able to donate their redpacks and the N95 respirator mask inside of it for distribution to local medical and public safety personnel.
Image 4: The email residents received encouraging them to donate their Red Emergency Backpacks
That said, getting the information distributed was a gradual process. As Villejo Banks shared, while working in the office with Director Jaehne she received numerous calls from residents and their families wanting to know if students were going to be “kicked out of housing” as was occurring at other institutions. With drafts of protocols, potential next steps and a steady stream of changes throughout the day, it was not always clear what information Villejo Banks could share. Even so, as one of the few on-site folks working in the Residential Life Suite at the time she was able to “affirm, listen, share what we did know and what we’re working on.” One thing that she was eventually able to guarantee was that residents, herself included, were not being kicked out of housing. While they were given the option to leave, they were not required to leave HFS housing in toto. That said, they were not guaranteed the same space or room going into the Spring Quarter.
As Espiritu noted in our conversation, Residential Life and HFS’ operations going into Spring Quarter and throughout the next three years “had to fit within guidelines from Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) and state and county health officials, but the implementation had to make sense within our lived context.” In accordance with public health guidelines, all remaining residents were required to have access to a private bath space. While many residential halls at UW have rooms with private bathrooms, or semi-private bathrooms, not all of them do. Hansee Hall, Haggett Hall, and half of Madrona Hall only have shared floor bathrooms while McMahon Hall had “cluster” spaces with bathrooms shared by 7-9 residents per space.
Image 5: Standard McMahon cluster layout
None of these spaces met the new requirements and, as such, HFS embarked on a Housing Optimization Plan to account for both residents who would be staying for the entirety of spring quarter and those who, while departing, would be leaving after May 10, 2020. This plan involved shuffling McMahon residents into spaces on West campus while residents in the other North buildings were shuffled into adjacent buildings (or down the hallway in some cases for Madrona residents). This shuffle took two weeks and involved an intricate cart check-out process whereby residents would check out a clean and sanitized cart from a central location (or have a cart delivered), move into their new space, and then staff would use master keys to retrieve and then sanitize carts that had been used the night before. Of course, residents were not the only folks to be shuffled. Student Leaders were also moved into new buildings to account for both staff needs and the stark changes in occupancy going into the Spring Quarter. All in all, the reallocation and consolidation of spaces allowed for the continued workshopping of what would eventually become our current Isolation and Quarantine Program and marked the beginning of HFS’ implementation of designated isolation and quarantine spaces on campus.
The Development of the Program: June 2020-June 2021
As staffs shuffled and the university pivoted to an online and remote approach to classes and work, numerous persons and units at UW met to create and implement a more robust housing response to the pandemic and to develop clear protocols and procedures for staff and students that would be malleable enough to respond to updated guidelines but sufficiently robust to endure pivots, adjustments, and modifications over time. As the current Director of Operations, and as the point person for HFS’ emergency management plans, Dr. Josh Gana noted that the initial response was, in many ways, like “walking on quicksand.” While we currently have a better understanding of both the science and appropriate responses for mitigating risk, at the time there were “hour by hour changes, the science was changing, and there just were no models that we could use specifically to inform our response. While we had models and plans for flu, those models did not encompass the scope and scale of what we were talking about with COVID-19.” As HFS and residential life started to launch various programmatics within the context of an emergency management response, no one knew the actual scope of the response and of the pandemic, much less the temporal extension of the programs folks were tasked with developing and implementing. What folks did have, however, was the understanding that the response had to be immediate, it had to “account for the safety students and staff with the understanding that while we could work to mitigate risks it would not be possible to completely eliminate them,” (Espiritu) and it had to be be sufficiently robust so as to allow the university and unit to catch up to and get ahead of the COVID-19 arc itself.
As both Gana and Espiritu noted in conversation, the initial response in the first few days, weeks, and months followed a retrospectively understandable trajectory as persons and units worked together to figure out, from scratch, next steps without being able to check-in on what other peer institutions were doing. After all, we were one of the the first to implement and adopt an Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program and many institutions were waiting to see what we would do. On the one hand, the initial processes are very much exemplified by the earlier narratives of Director Jaehne, Villejo Banks’s fruit run, and the Mercer CA team piloting a meal drop-off and delivery program. At the beginning the approach was a 1-on-1 case management-esque strategy and ad hoc response that initially worked without clearly defined processes at the institutional and departmental level. On the other hand, with time and resources a much more defined process emerged and morphed from a “non-resourced program to a systematic and repeatable process and procedure based program” (Gana) that included the creation of a specific position to do the day-to-day case management and support for residents entering isolation or quarantine.
To this latter point, it is important to understand the initial approaches used when developing the program and just how many folks were at the table to design and workshop next steps. As Espiritu detailed in our conversation, the creation and development of a response involved robust collaboration from multiple unit partners across the university and at the county level. Units such as Environmental Health and Safety, Desk Services, Facilities, Dining, and Residential Life were all charged to work together to develop the university’s response and next steps. As my last interlocutor Jessica Rashid (Assistant Director for Student Care and Conduct) noted, the workshopping of the possibility space involved everyone from Dr.Gotlieb, EH&S leaders, the Executive Director of Residential Life Dr.Pam Schreiber, and the Assistant Vice President to the persons with their “boots on the ground” such as community managers and others in student facing roles. As next steps were developed, or as proscriptions, restrictions, and requirements funneled down from public health officials and the state, Espiritu, Gana, Rashid, and others worked to create an on the ground functional program.
When we consider the strategy behind this implementation, the approach Espiritu and others utilized sought to prioritize safety for students, and to acknowledge the impact perceptions of safety would have on folks’ experiences in the process, all while navigating through various obstacles as they bridged on paper guidelines with a contextualized implementation within the residential spaces on campus. To this end, Espiritu intentionally sought to create protocols and procedures that were in alignment or similar to what was already in place.
For example, Residential Life had historically had an emergency space process that could be activated in certain circumstances and there were already extant systems, such as a centralized Emergency Space Database, that could be adjusted to account for new types of entries (i.e., students entering self-isolation or quarantine). As such, Espiritu’s approach mirrored this process and in doing so allowed student leaders, community managers, and unit partners to engage with something that, while “new,” was still somewhat familiar and understandable given historical context. With this starting point Espiritu in conjunction with other team members was able to identify unit partners who in virtue of their structures would be able to support immediate needs of an isolation and quarantine program including access to food, mental health resources, laundry options, trash/recycling collection, access to packages/medicine, and broader medical assistance as needed. For example, to cover food Residential Life tapped Bay Laurel Catering to provide meals for residents in isolation or quarantine.
As Rashid noted, even this element involved robust conversations and intentional reflection as folks workshopped the logistics of delivering hot meals to residents, coordinating deliveries to ensure that meals were available during the times residents would normally be eating, maintaining compliance with food storage/handling requirements, designing packaging to ensure the correct meals were delivered to persons with dietary restrictions/needs, and figuring out a process whereby Student Leaders and community managers would be able to have access to the meals in order to facilitate deliveries. Given supply chain issues, a working group also looked into non-perishable options, held tastings for Cup of Noodles (among other things) to ensure that any available options were things that residents would actually want to eat, and identified a source for bottled water to account for any reservations residents may have in drinking tap water. Similar conversations occurred with Desk Services, Facilities, and the Counseling Center among other units to fill in additional gaps and to give folks a starting point going into summer and the 2021-2022 academic year. Concerning the food, at least, it also helped UW avoid critiques lodged against other universities on TikTok concerning the quality and availability of meal options.
While I will highlight how some things have changed over the last two years in the next section, before we skip forward in our timeline I would like to take a moment to highlight a few lesser known facts about the initial framework and a few complications that arose in the first year of the program that demonstrate the resiliency of the initial structure and of the persons supporting the isolation and quarantine initiatives to respond to stressors and shifts.
Going into the Fall 2020 Quarter, around 4,100 residents were living on-campus in contrast with what is usually around ~10,000 on-campus residents. In order to account for any on-campus COVID-19 cases, Residential Life designated Oak Hall on North Campus and Poplar Hall on West Campus as “isolation spaces” (i.e., spaces for folks who had tested positive for COVID-19) while Mercer B was utilized for “quarantine spaces” (i.e., spaces for folks who had not tested positive for COVID-19 but were being asked to monitor active symptoms while awaiting test results or were a known close contact). To be clear, these spaces and buildings were picked due to public health requirements concerning the types of spaces that, at the time, could be utilized as isolation or quarantine spaces, to ensure that residents would feel safe living in their assigned rooms during the school year, and to ensure that student leaders would feel safe while supporting residents in isolation or in quarantine.
Image 6: The respective locations of the 2020-2021 Isolation and Quarantine spaces
The first complication I would like to mention concerns an interesting logistical puzzle: how exactly does a team of ~4 Reslife Professionals serving on the aptly named IsoQuaran-team move 82 residents across campus into quarantine in one day? For context, due to the impacts of COVID-19 Fraternity and Sorority Life had restricted the number of “live-in” options at various houses (half capacity or less) and other houses had opted to not have any live-in options for the 2020-2021 school year. As a result, a number of students who were part of Fraternity and Sorority Life opted to live on-campus and many picked rooms on North Campus. Unfortunately, during the Fall of 2020 two surges swept through the Greek community and resulted in 82 residents being required to quarantine for 14 days due to close contact with persons who had tested positive for COVID-19.
When considering the available options, it was clear that Residential Life would need a creative solution. On the one hand, it was non-negotiable that the Greek Life members would have to move due to expectations of their housing contracts and, more to the point, the guidance they received directly from EH&S. On the other hand, it was not reasonable to ask residents to carry their belongings a mile in the rain. However it also was not feasible to ask Student Leaders to assist the 82 residents in their relocation efforts due to the uncertainty concerning infectivity and mechanism of spread. As Rashid shared, the solution was to tap in one of the only on-campus groups that, at the time, had been fitted with N95 respirators: the painters. Equipped with their respirators and trucks filled with student belongings, UW’s painting team played an integral role in relocating 82 members of Greek Life across campus from North Campus to Mercer B for their 14 day quarantine periods. With their help, Residential Life was able to shuttle all the residents and their belongings across campus in a single day.
The second complication, though my no means the only remaining one, concerned student care. In past years, standing protocols had required Student Leaders and Professional Staff members alike to arrive on site when supporting students who were in need of mental health based resources such as those found via UW’s Counseling Center or Hall Health. In fact, leading up to the pandemic the model of response that Student Leaders were trained on involved in-person response and reporting protocols. However, with a broader shift to social distancing and the instantiation of isolation and quarantine procedures the standard protocols were no longer feasible. In fact, it would have been contrary to public health recommendations to continue using them. As such, Rashid noted, “we hadn’t initially thought about how to implement a Student of Concern response with zoom.” However, given the lived reality going into both Summer and Fall 2020 Residential Life had to adapt the current program and find ways to extend support and care while maintaining physical social distance.
Strict guest policies that restricted outside visitors to essential guests (this was due to Governor Inslee’s “Stay At Home” order and explicit King County Public Health Guidance), the closure of many internal and external community spaces such as lounges or libraries, restrictions on group sizes for folks living in the same residential hall, the pause on Registered Student Organizations at UW, and an all online class model contributed to robust feelings of isolation for the many students staying on campus. The fact that all of these stressors were occurring on top of potentially being asked to isolate or quarantine for 10-14 days meant that the adapted model had to account for the specific types of support that would be needed and ensure adequate levels of safety throughout a given interaction. To that end, Rashid and others within the Student Care and Conduct bubble developed a model that would allow for care based conversations over zoom if an in-person meeting was not possible. In doing so, they noted and pre-planned for delimitations in private spaces/location/comfortability and introduced additional structures and checks to ensure that if zoom lost connection there would be a plan in place for reconnecting with the resident to continue the conversation and support. When considering the whole picture, the intentionality of the COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Program was to meet specific requirements as instantiated by public health guidelines and directives, but it also sought to take into account the full experience and situatedness of the residents living on campus during the pandemic. As Gana noted, even as we were implementing external requirements we wanted to make sure our residents “were respected, received the care and attention they needed, and that they were treated in a way that cared for their well being in the big picture, not just concerning their health status [with respect to COVID-19].”
In starting with the familiar and pulling in unit partners, the program and approach of the initial program was able to add in the nuances and pivots overtime as the process adjusted to fit the actual needs of a pandemic response. In the next section I dive into what things look like today and how some elements shifted over time as guidance changed from public health officials and as the folks with boots on the ground advocated for pivots based on student feedback and input.
The Now: July 2021-Current Day
Given that I am no longer a Community Assistant in Mercer Court, it seems appropriate to, in a sense, start with a more contextualized introduction–My name is Lindsay (Linds) Whittaker and I am the COVID-19 Program Manager here at the University of Washington. In my position, I support the logistics and programmatics for our Isolation and Quarantine Program as it applies to our ~10,000 on-campus residential population. Put otherwise, I am the direct case manager for residential students and liaison with various unit partners to ensure that the program runs smoothly as students enter and exit isolation protocols. Currently we have a functional and replicable program that is able to support students who have tested positive for COVID-19 as they workshop their isolation plans, next steps, and navigate through various systems of care and support. This is all a fairly high level gloss, so let’s dive into the specifics of how things work, what the process looks like now, the pivots we have made along the way, and also what specifically it means when a residential student tests positive for COVID-19 here at UW.
First, for this school year we have been operating on an isolation only model due following amended EH&S guidelines, there are isolation spaces in almost every residential hall, and all of our spaces are currently default shared spaces due to feedback from the past two years. By this I mean that residents may have between 1-3 roommates during their time in isolation depending on the number of cases at any given time. While in previous years a chunk of our isolation and quarantine spaces were singles, the feedback we received from residents was that this exacerbated feelings of isolation and that the folks who were in shared spaces appreciated having someone else there whom they could talk to and connect with during their isolation period. As such, we were able to work with EH&S to approve a new model and, following approval, we worked with the Student Services Office to identify and hold rooms that would fulfill the newly amended requirements.
On the whole one of the more major pivots for our program was this shift away from designating a specific building as “the building” for isolation or quarantine spaces. The intentionality of this move was both to allow for a fuller utilization of available on-campus housing (a lot of students wanted to live on campus once we returned to in-person classes and keeping several buildings completely offline would have severely delimited how many students would be able to live in residence) and to reduce the impacts for residents as they shifted into a temporary isolation space. Rather than moving several buildings away, the hope was that a resident would, at most, have to move into an adjacent building in the event space was not available within their own building. Likewise, we wanted to account for the stigma residents may experience as they moved to/from a specific building that was collectively associated with COVID-19 isolation and a positive sero-status. The above gloss should already highlight that a number of pieces have shifted. To understand the other shifts that we have made, let's consider the typical order of events and how our typical process currently works in contrast with previous years.
In the event a student tests positive for COVID-19 and shares their health status with Environmental Health and Safety or with other Residential Life staff, I am informed about their test result and begin outreach within an hour (though usually it is within 5-10 minutes unless I am in a meeting). The first email residents receive from me is a COVID-19 Isolation Notification email sharing that they are required to isolate (in some fashion) and we are here to support them as they workshop what that means for them and their specific circumstance. To help residents as they decide whether they would like to isolate off campus with family/friends, on-campus in a designated isolation space, or in-place if they live in an apartment and we can collect consent from all their current roommates, I include links to both our Isolation Housing Support Guide and our “Get Well Meal” Delivery Guide which detail the following pieces:
How to contact me
Package and mail deliver options
Waste, compost, & recycling Steps
Emergency evacuation procedures
How to get help with maintenance concerns
Support resources including Hall Health, UW Counseling, RA On-Call, etc.
How to use their dining plan (or credit/debit/husky card) to get food delivered to their isolation space
After sending that email, I wait to hear back from the resident to see if they have any questions or requests. For example, in some cases residents will share that they have specific dietary restrictions and need access to a kitchen or another option for meals. If so, then I am able to work with them to identify an isolation space that has a kitchen space or I am able to assist in coordinating an Instacart delivery. In other cases, a resident may share that they will need a more private space due to various medical appointments. While our spaces are shared by default, I and other folks are able to work with residents to workshop the possibility space and see whether what we are able to offer maps onto what will be most conducive for their recovery. In working with residents and our available isolation rooms list, I also work to ensure that residents have an opportunity to be in a gender inclusive space irrespective of their current room assignment and try to pair roommates or friends together if we have the space and bandwidth to honor specific requests. The last frequent component involves requests for medications or COVID-19 antigen tests. While there are strict delimitations in HFS’ ability to directly provide, procure, and deliver items of this sort, when this question arises I share that we are able to work with folks to figure out options that meet their needs while staying compliant with existing protocols. For example, while I cannot buy a resident advil from the DM, nothing precludes one of their roommates, friends, or a family member from purchasing it on their behalf and dropping it off outside their door.
Once a resident has asked any immediate questions and indicated where they would like to isolate, we are able to move into the second step. Centrally, residents’ information is entered into the Emergency Space Database that I mentioned in the previous section. While there have been some minor shifts in the format we use over the past three years, we have continued to use the same database in order to keep facilities, maintenance, and custodial teams apprised of which spaces to not enter during a given day (student names and other information such as their SID is kept confidential). After all of their information is entered, residents receive a confirmation email to confirm whether they are isolating off campus, on campus in their current assignment, or on campus in a temporary assignment. These latter two emails once again contain links for the guide along with information about the isolation process and program. Finally, a Community Manager or Student Leader is dispatched to drop off a Health and Safety Kit, a key packet, and a cart (depending on the circumstances). At the end of their isolation period, residents receive an exit email detailing how to exit from their temporary space and guiding them to the key drop-off locations on both sides of campus.
While this gloss may seem fairly straightforward and many moves and isolation plans are able to be completed within an hour at this point, in many ways it elides just how complex the program actually is. As Espiritu noted, “when it comes to the logistics of moving a student, a lot of moving pieces have to happen to get a student from Point A to Point B.” To consider the current logistics let us consider a few of the moving pieces that underpin the above elements.
First, we have Desk Services. In order to have keys packets that we can drop off to residents, Lander, Willow, and Nordheim regional desks had to create isolation key packets for on-campus isolation spaces, keep track of the key packets and ensure that they are available even when the desk is closed, check keys/building access cards out to residents entering isolation based on information provided to them on a “key issuance slip,” and ensure that residents are returning the packets following the end of their isolation period. Additionally the desks also currently support package deliveries for residents who are isolating and assist with meal deliveries three times a day during normal operations.
Next we have our Facilities and Custodial team. This group of folks sanitizes and cleans all of the isolation spaces between occupants, stocks the spaces with toilet paper, soap, and garbage bags, ensures that a microwave and mini-fridge are available in each isolation unit (and that they work), provides free laundry services upon request, and also triages any emergent facilities issues that may impact the space. For example, if a unit is experiencing a heating issue the facilities team is able to troubleshoot initial solutions remotely (e.g., has the switch been turned on?) and then can determine whether a resident will need to be relocated so they can enter the space at a later time to conduct repairs.
Concerning our dining teams, as noted in the previous section we initially utilized Bay Laurel Catering for meals. However, our current system and approach has pivoted to utilize UW’s in-house mobile ordering system: DubGrub. By utilizing a system that many students are already familiar with and which can de facto connect with an existing dining plan, students in isolation are able to choose from any of the available options at Local Point or Center Table and have those meals dropped off to their isolation space free of charge. By also pivoting to have DSRs drop meals off, we are able to provide hot meals three times a day during normal operations in contrast to a three meal bundle that would have to be reheated.
While the current program has shifted substantially over the past three years concerning our approach to dining, the types of spaces we use, the various roles of Student Leaders and pro-staff, at the end of the day were have been able to “deliver continuity of programs and services with the additional element of an Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program” (Gana). Before I move into the final section that highlights additional elements that, in the future, we will need to unpack and reflect on, I would like to highlight one major obstacle that has remained a sticking point since the inception of the Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program: the dissemination and uptake of information concerning what is entailed by the program, what pieces we are unable to proactively account for in virtue of the program’s structure, and the differences in operations between EH&S, Residential Life, and the university writ large.
In my position as the current program manager, it has not been uncommon to receive phone calls from residents and their families concerning things ranging from not having access to food, residents sharing that they had not received any outreach concerning a pending move to isolation housing, or concerns once a new roommate arrives to an isolation space. In most cases, concerns about food are easily remedied when I contact residents directly, ask if they have looked at the meal ordering guide, and see what questions they may have–in a number of cases folks did not look at the guide at all and assumed that they would be on their own (they are also usually very happy to hear that they can use their meal plan to get free delivery). In other cases, there may be a dietary restriction that neither myself or other pro-staff members would be able to know about without a resident sharing that information directly with us. When I hear concerns about there being no outreach, in most cases it turns out that a resident emailed EH&S rather than Residential Life which can cause delays since EH&S is not able to relocate residents of their own accord. In cases where there are concerns about roommate, this has usually involved an accessibility need or underlying medical complication that we can work around once we are looped in. To be clear, what these elements highlight is not that residents aren’t doing what they need to do–what these elements highlight is that, from a student perspective, elements of a system can easily run together and become a single conglomerate even when parts of the system are operating in discrete ways. When it comes to dietary restrictions or health needs, it may be that that information is somewhere in a student’s file but due to privacy rights that information is not always shared with or accessible to folks within Residential Life. Given that a student may be in communication with both EH&S and Residential Life, it’s understandable to initially think that by reaching out to one entity folks have de facto reached both.
As such, part of my motivation for making this blog post is to raise awareness to some extent concerning the ways the program operates on the ground and the perceptions of the operation that may influence or impact how residents and their families initially engage with the program. In knowing that there may be gaps in understanding, Residential Life and myself can work to make the systems and processes more understandable and accessible to those seeking information about the program. This is not to say that there may not be some cases where folks aren’t quite using available resources–there have been a few here and there where folks did not read the resource guide, forgot that the phone number for their CM is likely in their inbox in an unread message about cleanliness inspections, and did not quite get around to replying to the emails they had received from Residential Life to share their concerns–but these cases are few and far between. When there are gaps or hiccups, more often than not the hiccup is understandable given both the stressors involved and the fact that it is easy to see Residential Life, HFS, EH&S, and UW as a single overarching conglomerate.
The Future and The Unnamed
While the above sections provide a high level gloss about the evolution of the Isolation and Quarantine Housing Program over the past few years, there are a number of elements that I do not have adequate space to discuss. This is not, however, to say that these elements are not important nor that they are elements we should ignore–if anything, they are elements that are the sine qua non of the program and need their own dedicated post. Since I can not do them justice at this current time, however, I want to end by calling out attention to them and inviting further reflection about how they underpin and interweave with the above narrative.
The first thing I would like to name is the impact on staff. It is an indisputable fact that many staff members were creating the program from scratch “while also trying to figure out their own job security” (Espiritu). The decrease in students living on campus led to to concerns for student workers who relied on on-campus jobs for their income, there were required furloughs for professional staff members which in turn impacted continuity of supervision for student leaders, and at the end of the day folks were working “fewer hours, for lower income, but still had bills to pay at the end of the day” (Villejo Banks). Additionally, not all positions were or are able to work remotely–the custodial and maintenance teams were being asked to navigate through areas of uncertainty when it came to keeping the buildings up and running even while other folks worked from home. As such, many of the positions that keep Residential Life running and the buildings standing were and have been asked to bear a disproportionate burden of risk. I don’t believe that we get to ignore this fact and the fact that our current program is only possible because of this labor.
The second thing I would like to highlight is a hidden component when it came to the furloughs, at least, as folks within Residential Life “came together to manage it and make it work” (Rashid). Some folks of their own volition decided to do completely different work during the 2020-2021 school year in order to ensure that their colleagues would be able to have more continuity in their own careers. One person hopped over to Career Services for the year and in doing so allowed for less furloughs within the Residential Life Team. Two other folks adjusted their primary work load from programs to workshopping conduct and compliance pieces as the university saw an increase in face-covering related policy hiccups. The choice to make these pivots demonstrated, among other systemic things, the care folks had for one another as the impacts started to ripple out in the Residential Life Department.
Finally, I would invite us to consider what this means for us all in the future and what lessons we may have learned in the project of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. As both Espiritu and Gana noted, there are open questions concerning when we may be asked to begin rolling back a program that for many residents has been present since they moved into on-campus housing. When that time comes, the rollback will have to be done thoughtfully and with a keen eye towards shifts that will continue to honor the work and labor that went into the program over the last few years. There are also questions concerning what this means moving forward for broader programmatics within the department and university. As we have built strong connections between units and learned to work together on an emergent public health issue, how can we work together in the future if another public health issue were to arise and what models or procedures would we want to reactivate if needs be? While we certainly do not want this to happen again, hopefully we would minimally be equipped to “take step back and spin up a small operation into a larger one” (Gana) given the shifts in scopes we had to initiate in response to COVID-19. When we consider resident facing initiative, are there opportunities to engage in “better education to proactively get buy-in” (Villejo Banks) about health education and communicable disease before something becomes a wide scale concern or ways in which we can shift our policies, practices, and language to build in measures and responses without building them from scratch? Finally, there are questions about broad scale impacts to HFS, Residential Life, persons who work in those areas, and our residents.
As we rebuild workforce relationships and get back to business, or at least a bit closer to being “back to business,” we have to acknowledge that there are a number of “crisis driven shifts” (Gana) that will remain for some time. Some shifts, such as maintaining a virtual option for conducting meetings or even doing door to door programming, may be beneficial when it comes to accounting for different student needs in specific contexts. Other shifts may be elements we will collectively have to process through as we reimagine what work in Residential Life looks like for the foreseeable future as we continue to work together to enhance student life in the context of a pandemic.