Some community assistants, citing health concerns, quit amid pandemic

Due to contract changes and miscommunication about safety protocol, some community assistants aren't returning to their positions

Several community assistants are leaving their positions due to lack of communication and what they feel is misguided prioritization of returning over complete and transparent safety plans from leadership in University Housing.

As campuses begin to gear up for an unprecedented semester, community assistants at ASU, who watch over students in residential halls and have remained in their position, said the general attitude is one of fear and confusion. They describe the handling of their concerns as unorganized, unresponsive and immature.

Community assistants who have left their posts said contract changes that limit off-campus activities, ask them to be desk assistants and interact with residents – while having no clear plans for what happens if residents test positive for COVID-19 – caused them to fear for the worst. 

"I've worked for housing a long time and they just aren't super great to work under," said Samuel Thiele, a senior studying political science and urban planning. "And the added danger of life and peril ... I'm not willing to put up with the incompetence of them."

Thiele resigned when he returned to an unclean assigned room. He said it was somewhat expected, but the incident made him lose confidence that other dorms and classrooms would be clean.

"I was hoping that people would change and be more serious," Thiele said. "The same mistakes are being made, but now with higher consequences. Usually I trust my classmates, but I worry. I worry that people aren't going to be responsible about this."

Changes in contract were not expected

Alexander Amaya, a junior studying computer systems engineering, resigned from his position after receiving his contract. Amaya said a recommendation for in-person interaction and other changes he was not expecting caused him to fear for his safety.

"On one level, I don't want to get COVID-19. I've been fortunate enough to avoid it so far," Amaya said. "But I also think a lot of the contract changes put us in direct contact with students more."

Being a community assistant for many students means guiding freshmen through their first year, creating a space for students to call home and offering advice on a number of school-related topics. Another benefit of the job is the reduced housing and meal costs, which students who felt forced to quit will lose. 

According to several contracts obtained by The State Press, community assistants are asked to work 20 hours a week – 15 hours on duty patrolling hallways, organizing events, attending meetings and five hours as a desk assistant where applicable. 

The latter responsibility has not been asked of community assistants in about three years. Students working the desk would be tasked with handing out masks, helping check-in residents and making sure no unwanted visitors enter the building; all things community assistants understand to be direct contact that could be avoided and put them at risk. 

Amaya said contracts are typically distributed in March, followed by training seminars for all staff. This year, he received it at the end of July and was given four days to sign and return it. 

"I don't know if they did this on purpose or not, but it definitely feels like they were kind of backing us into a corner," Amaya said, adding that questions sent to University Housing were not answered in time to meet the deadline for signing his contract.

Those asked to possibly expose themselves, like community assistants, said they don't know intricate details they should to conduct their job. They aren't confident in the University's promise to protect their safety, either.

"It's very unclear what we're actually supposed to do," said a senior studying biological studies who is staying in their position as a CA and is remaining anonymous because they don't want to lose the job. "We're basically kind of switching over from more of a guidance counselor role to more of a security clearance role, and that's not really what I signed up for." 

According to a University spokesperson, more than 14,000 students are expected to return to residence halls, a number that fluctuates from year to year. But the number is subject to change as students receive exemptions, defer or drop out. Roughly 3,400 students have received an exemption and another 400 are waiting for approval, a University spokesperson said.

Flexibility available for students but not community assistants

Job contracts obtained by The State Press show community assistants will not be able to leave campus for more than 12 hours at a time without approval.

According to a list of responses from Community Director Aaron Voldberg to community assistants, the policy was "to minimize COVID-19 risks to the community."

Some community assistants said they weren't sure if they would even be able to go home for Thanksgiving and winter breaks, a sacrifice they were willing to make but did not understand why the rule only applied to them. 

Community assistants who resigned said they weren't sure why the policy was only imposed on them and not the rest of their residents if the sole reason was to minimize the spread. 

"Because of their important role in our student communities and our focus on student wellness, we have put policies in place that help ensure their availability to students," a University spokesperson said. "Lastly, the Community Assistant role is a student worker position and with all employees, formal request for time off must be submitted – much like you would in any job." 

Amaya said the University had been flexible with various student scenarios – offering multiple class delivery options and the opportunity to submit a housing exemption – but digital options for interacting with residents did not seem to be prioritized. 

After finishing a semester virtually and enduring an indoor summer, community assistants said they are desperate to see residents and participate in as much of a normal schedule as possible. That's not feasible for many of them, however, when questions about the situation continue to go unanswered. 

"Before they gave us our contract for this year, I figured that I would be able to interact with my residents digitally for the most part," Amaya said. 

Based on several community assistant contracts, interactions with residents will still happen partially in-person. In a recorded Zoom meeting shared with The State Press, a supervisor for one housing community explained that every event community assistants are asked to organize should have some in-person facet. For example, students may pick up materials in a central location before returning to dorms for virtual instruction.

Community assistants advocated solely for digital interaction when speaking to supervisors, explaining that doing so would allow for a continued community if and when student plans and course delivery change or if a student must relocate for isolation or quarantine. 

However, the University believes CA duties, including organizing in-person events, have a "high impact on student retention," a University spokesperson said in a statement.

In the recorded Zoom meeting shared with The State Press, community assistants were told if one of their residents has the virus, their roommate most likely has the virus, too.

"That kind of logic is so backwards in my opinion," said Alexia Childress, another community assistant who quit. "Because then why are we having roommates in the first place? Why are we having in-person interactions at all if it's that likely and they're saying that out loud." 

Voldberg did not answer several questions from The State Press and instead referred media inquiries to University Housing, which received requests for comment but did not respond.

The senior community assistant said events in previous semesters would draw roughly 70 attendees each. While most students trickle in bunches to events rather than pack it at one time, they all use the same space, materials for craft projects and utensils to serve themselves food. 

"Every single time I've been rehired, something has changed," the senior community assistant said. They said the habit puts staff members in a position where they often aren't sure what protocol is.

Lack of communication on what to do

Community assistants repeatedly said they were never given clear answers as to what will happen to residents if and when they test positive for the cornavirus, a situation that is nearly inevitable. A University spokesperson confirmed there are several isolation spaces reserved across campuses but did not elaborate on where specifically or how much space would be available.

In addition to feeling left in the dark about positive cases, community assistants said they weren't sure what their role was in disciplining students who do not wear masks. 

The University has alerted students if they do not follow protocol on campus, including the mask mandate, they will be punished. Residents will not be required to wear face masks in their own personal rooms but everywhere else on campus.

According to several statements from the University, the school will use the Student Code of Conduct to discipline repeat offenders of safety rules. 

Childress, a junior studying medical microbiology, said she's worried most about the unknowns of the virus.  

"So many students are going to get sick, ASU is going to be in the news and get blamed for it," Childress said. "I'm on my toes already waiting for (a cancellation of in-person activities). I think they have it coming."

Childress, with a background in science writing and research, said University officials need to treat communication like a scientific paper – written for the general population, not just those who understand education jargon and vocabulary about the virus. 

Childress said she doesn't expect success with the current reopening plan in place, one of many reasons why she resigned from her position as a community assistant. 

Actions from upper housing leadership, including the contract changes and little communication over summer break, show her "they have no idea what’s going on" and only "want students to be here because they want money."

"As a public University, our goal should be to educate people about things that will affect them in their careers and their futures and that is this (virus)," Childress said. 


Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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