On Aug. 23, members of the Lewis and Clark Executive Council met with Resident Advisor (RA) student leaders and observers from the Associated Students of Lewis and Clark’s (ASLC) COVID-19 task force. The day prior, RAs had sent a letter to the administration with a list of demands: communication with representatives from the Executive Council (which serves a similar function to Reed’s Board of Trustees) by Aug. 23, mandatory online classes until COVID-19 test results came back, and a reformation of the school’s COVID-19 preparedness website.
This summer, some Lewis and Clark students were already feeling anxious about the Fall semester before the RAs had arrived on campus. Mikah Bertelmann, President of ASLC, Lewis and Clark’s student government, told the Quest that students had been posting information online that they had received from faculty and staff that contradicted what he had been told by the administration. “I was noticing a lot of students posting on our class Facebook pages and just in general on social media about questions and things that they’ve heard from faculty or from staff that was inaccurate based on the information I was receiving from my meetings with administration,” Bertelmann said.
Bertelmann created the ASLC COVID-19 task force in July to alleviate this issue. Students Olivia Weiss and Jacques Parker were selected based on their interest and prior experience in the ASLC. Over the summer Weiss and Parker created an email for students to anonymously send in their concerns, began meeting with administrators to facilitate communication, and started searching for more members to join the new task force.
However, RAs were alarmed at the school’s lack of preparedness when they arrived on campus on Aug. 17. Many were expecting more COVID-specific training, according to Cas Mulford, ASLC Student Resources Coordinator and RA.
“All the training that we had done over the summer was very basic, like, based on years prior, was not at all COVID modified in any way,” Mulford said. “Before training we had no COVID updated information and then we went into training expecting to get that information.”
There was also a lack of signage about COVID-19 in campus bathrooms and kitchens.
“At that point, none of the bathrooms had signs posted about COVID guidelines,” Mulford said. “There wasn’t social distancing between sinks or stalls or anything. None of that signage had been posted at that point.”
Kaylee-Anna Jayaweera, another RA, described the situation in the first days back on campus: “We were supposed to go through the halls and figure out how many people we thought should be in the common areas and put up our own signs for safety measures.”
Furthermore, the RAs had also been led to believe that they would be provided with N95 masks for their rounds, but this turned out to not be the case. The RAs asked Joe-Berry Gardner, Interim Director of Campus Living College of Arts and Science, if Lewis and Clark would provide RAs with N95s.
“We were told by [Gardner] that we would be given N95 masks for any on-call situations that we would have to deal with before duty rounds actually started,” Mulford said. “And then that never actually happened.”
The RAs sought answers from Melissa Osmond, Associate Director for Health Promotion, regarding social distancing rules and whether or not the school had a closure plan ready, but Osmond, like Gardner, did not have answers, according to Mulford.
“So we were asking questions like, ‘How are the bathrooms going to work? How are kitchens going to work?’” Mulford said. “And she was like, ‘I don’t really know. We don’t have an answer to that.’ And I remember asking if they had a closing plan in place yet, and her response was, ‘If we have a closing plan, I haven’t been told what it is.’”
The RAs quickly began communicating with one another to discuss the lack of training, published closure plan, and PPE, as well as the unclear response from the Lewis and Clark administration. They established a group chat in order to effectively communicate their concerns and demands to the administration. The RAs were initially unsure of how to move forward, but then RAs at Cornell University released their own statement demanding action from their administration. The RAs felt that they had found a way to make their voices heard.
“That letter to [Cornell’s] administration … that really gave us confidence in the credibility of our demands,” Jayaweera said.
On Aug. 22, the RAs drafted a letter signed by concerned RAs and members of the ASLC COVID-19 task force. Members of the Executive Council met with the RAs the next day and began to address their concerns.
“The very next day, three out of the eight of our demands were immediately met,” Jayaweera said. “We had PPE shipped to the offices; we had spray bottles put into every common room; we had furniture removed and all that kind of stuff; and we had signage put up.”
Although several RAs felt that the administration had taken the demands seriously, at least superficially, as time went on the RAs continued to find issues that needed to be addressed on campus. The fires that occurred on Sept. 8 only exacerbated their concerns, as some students suffered health issues due to the smoke, according to Jayaweera.
Nathan Oakley, an RA in charge of about 20 residents, said, “Now we’re seeing too with the fires, there’s no ventilation in the dorms. We have students in need of medical attention because they’re having a lot of coughing, which is also a concern too because the symptoms of the poor air quality often times mimic the symptoms of COVID-19.”
Many RAs and members of ASLC said that poor communication and a general feeling of confusion among the student body was a consistent theme even before COVID-19.
“It’s a complicated problem,” Jayaweera said. “But that baseline answer—no matter whatever perspective you take—is that there has been a lapse in foundational communication throughout my history at Lewis and Clark.”
Bertlemann agrees. “In my experience Lewis and Clark doesn’t have a very strong history in having students involved in decision making regularly and [students] are often just observers in discussions and we’ll be involved when it’s appropriate,” Bertlemann said. “And I think that was probably a really big problem this summer.”
Jayaweera believes that the source of these continued issues is the administration’s reactionary policy. “I think something that we brought up was that they have a lot of reactive policy instead of proactive policy and that’s something that we wanted to change,” Jayaweera said.
Despite these difficulties, Jayaweera feels hopeful about Lewis and Clark’s potential for change, citing Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students, Robin Holmes-Sullivan, as an ally and someone in the administration that RAs feel they can trust.
“Robin Holmes-Sullivan was truly making strides at trying to figure out what she could do [and] what we could do. We ended up having weekly meetings with her that are still going on, which is great,” Jayaweera said.
Holmes-Sullivan was the only Lewis and Clark administrator that responded to the Quest’s interview requests, but she was unable to be interviewed before the time of publication due to her busy work schedule.
Although it like “non-stop arguing” with the administration will never end, the pandemic continues and the RAs and ASLC do not plan to stop working to create a better campus living environment.
“We want to create a better, healthier, safer community for everybody because we live in this community,” Jayaweera said.