Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

A student makes his way to a Coach USA Shortline bus on West Campus on March 16, 2020.

August 21, 2020

West Campus Student Staff Demand More Transparency From Admin

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Two days after RAs across campus went on strike, West Campus student staff also aired out a set of grievances, asking for hazard pay and testing for live-in family members in a letter to the administration Friday.

Among the demands, West Campus student staff, consisting of graduate and undergraduate resident fellows, implored the administration to offer more guidance on surveillance testing for workers entering residence halls. Provost Michael Kotlikoff said Thursday that graduate students will only be tested once a week. However, West Campus staff wrote that workers, especially graduate student fellows, should be tested as often as undergraduate students because they have the same amount of exposure.

West Campus student staff also asked administration to provide West Campus staff with more personal protective equipment, immediately implement the Cornell Compact Compliance Team — a group that Cornell tasked with enforcing the behavioral compact — and share contingency plans in the event residence halls experience outbreaks.

Similar to the RA demands, West Campus student staff also requested hazard pay for all workers, including dining, facilities, student, professional and building care staff.

The first wave of move-ins, which occurred on Aug. 17, was a litmus test of Cornell’s reopening plan. Some students that arrived from quarantine states on Aug. 17 weren’t immediately tested, and had to walk into Fischell Band Center without an appointment after already moving into dorms. Cornell repeatedly said that students living on campus would be tested the day they arrive. At a town hall on Tuesday, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi said that students who arrived late were tested immediately the next morning.

West Campus student staff said the University was unprepared for even more students to move in, citing no clear rules for quarantining or enforcement. Student residential staff members said they wouldn’t know what to do if one roommate has to quarantine or tests positive for COVID-19 while the other roommate is healthy, or if students decided to throw a party in a dorm.

“The administration gave [supervisors] the end goal for what they want Cornell to look like in the fall,” one graduate resident fellow said. The student asked to be anonymous out of job security concerns. “And then [the administration] said, ‘Figure out your own systems to get there.’ They promised to provide details on the systems like compliance, testing for employees, live-ins … their promises have yet to materialize. People have already moved in.”

Now, with move-in for around 5,000 students set to begin in just two days, residential student staff throughout West Campus have felt that they are juggling added responsibilities. They have been on campus for nearly two weeks, but don’t feel completely prepared to tackle an unconventional semester.

“We’re all freaking out,” said another graduate resident fellow at Hans Bethe House, who asked to be anonymous. “It’s a struggle between how much do we push our superiors to relay our concerns and how much do we sort of figure it out on our own.”

Multiple graduate resident fellows said that they didn’t receive thorough training on residence hall policies during COVID-19, describing the training as standard and presenting the pandemic as merely a caveat on top of the typical residential staff responsibilities.

“It was like, ‘Let’s just state the old protocol and then state that it will now be more difficult or potentially you’ll have to call some undefined enforcement because of COVID,’” said another graduate resident fellow in Bethe.

An undergraduate resident fellow at Bethe, who asked to be anonymous, said that her training prepared her to foster a sense of community during a pandemic, but she still felt uncertain about the semester.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to things that I’m uncomfortable with like if I have to break up a party in a dorm,” the undergraduate resident fellow said. “In the past, it was in our job description, but now [this is] uncharted waters and we don’t know what to do.”

During the past week, RAs said that the University failed to give them adequate support for handling the pandemic. One RA said they only received one face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer, and others lamented that they weren’t receiving fair compensation as they took on additional responsibilities that they said are beyond their job descriptions.

First-semester RA compensation includes a furnished room with a microfridge and $500 stipend. At West Campus, graduate resident fellows are compensated with a meal plan, a room and a $2,000 stipend over the course of the year. Undergraduate resident fellows receive free housing, a 25 percent discount on their meal plan and a $500 stipend.

West Campus student staff want the University to provide clearer public health guidance and more transparency on how the behavioral compact will be enforced in dorms.

“[Supervisors] had not received extra training from the University on outbreaks on a floor, outbreaks within a building, quarantine procedure if one of the roommates has to quarantine and the other doesn’t,” one of the graduate resident fellows said.

As the RA strike catalyzed into a campus-wide movement on Wednesday, Lombardi agreed to meet with RAs for around an hour at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Ramon Reyes ’21, a South Campus RA, wrote in a message to The Sun. After the RAs began to speak out, the Student Assembly released a statement of support, and received an outpouring of support from students, faculty and alumni .

The strike ended shortly after the meeting — Lombardi agreed to have further conversations on hazard pay, stipends and more RA representation on a University level.

Lombardi told the RAs Thursday that it was committed to providing more PPE and reducing dependence on hand sanitizer in favor of hand washing, but for face shields, the administration said that it felt it was at “the mercy of the market,” according to Reyes. Cornell said at the meeting that it ordered some face shields to distribute to staff, and that it would order more once they are widely available, Reyes wrote.

In a statement to The Sun on Thursday, Lombardi said the meeting was “productive” and that he was “deeply grateful for the commitment these students have made to their roles and their residents and look forward to establishing a stronger partnership moving forward.” Lombardi then sent an email to RAs on Friday, agreeing to meet their demands.

So far, the University hasn’t publicly responded to the new set of demands from West Campus student staff.

“The first move-in was a pressure test of the system and how it holds,” one of the graduate resident fellows said. “[The administration] is working furiously to close up the system and we have good faith that they’re trying, but they’re not ready.”

Read the full letter below.