Editor’s note: This story is sourced from three resident assistants who agreed to talk under the condition of anonymity, claiming they fear retribution from WMU. Their positions as RAs have been confirmed by the Western Herald. The Western Herald traditionally tries to find sources willing to attach their name to the story, but the immediacy of WMU’s reopening necessitated timely reporting with the sources available. More than a dozen RAs were asked for their thoughts--these were the only three willing to go on record. They represent only their own thoughts on the matter.
Three resident assistants from the Valley residence halls at Western Michigan University said they have “no confidence” in the university’s plans to reopen.
The resident assistants spoke with the Western Herald under the condition of anonymity, saying they feared professional retribution from WMU.
The three said that they have been frustrated by a lack of communication from the university administration since the beginning of the pandemic, but their frustration turned to anger as they began training for the fall semester.
“It really started with a townhall between the administration and reslife employees. They kept saying that the rapid testing was going to make Western different, safer,” said an RA from Valley 3. “But only the first asymptomatic test is free—they didn’t and haven’t explained how they plan to stop asymptomatic people or people who have very mild symptoms from spreading it later in the semester.”
Testing has been publicly identified by WMU as essential to a safe reopening. The university is holding a five-day testing event starting on Aug. 27. The RA from Valley 3 went on to say that they believe the university’s plan does not account for human nature.
“Even with testing, too much of this plan relies on students,” they said. “Opening could work if students weren’t going out partying off-campus, if they weren’t going to sneak in guests to the dorms, but they’re going to. Eighteen-year-olds are going to behave irresponsibly, that’s just how it is. While it’s unfortunate, the university needs to accept it.”
These concerns come as universities across the country face the challenges of reopening in a pandemic. Michigan State University has moved to online education. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill closed within days of reopening; medical experts from within the university had previously warned against reopening.
At WMU’s longtime rival Central Michigan University, students are already partying. The Central Michigan District Health Department says that the return of students to CMU has resulted in a spike of COVID-19 cases.
“It’s bullsh-t. We can’t let residents have guests, which makes sense, but we’re powerless if they go off campus and bring it (COVID-19) back. We have nothing to stop them from going to parties, and that’s exactly what they’re doing at CMU” said the RA from Valley 1. They added that even students behaving responsibly pose a risk.
“A lot of kids need to work to afford school—and a lot of them work off campus. That’s a transmission risk,” they said.
Paula Davis, WMU's director of strategic communications, provided an official response from the university regarding the risk posed by off-campus parties:
"What I can emphasize at this point is that we are fortifying our strategies to deter parties off campus. This will help strengthen what we have said for months: We expect students to follow—at all times—public health guidelines that lessen the chances of exposure and spread of COVID-19. That means wearing a mask and physically distancing while on campus and off campus, as well as avoiding large gatherings.
We plan to back that up with consequences. We know students can abide by rules that protect themselves and their peers. We were pleased, for example, that fraternities with chapter facilities have agreed not to host parties."
Despite assurances from university leadership, the resident assistants question whether the university is reopening in good faith.
“I doubt we’re going to be here more than a month before they kick us out,” said the RA from Valley 3. “I think it’s a ploy for money to get us out of this budget crisis.”
An RA from Valley 2 agreed with that assessment.
“It feels like they want to get as much money in room and board as they can before sending us back home. It feels like a scam,” they said. “The admins speaking in the townhall got visibly uncomfortable when they were asked whether the university will close if cases get too high.”
All three resident assistants said that the university’s leadership has left much to be desired.
“Every interaction, every question asked has left me feeling unhappy and unheard,” said the RA from Valley 2.
The RA from Valley 3 said they don’t believe that WMU will offer RA positions to those who chose to go online this year.
“If I had my way, I’d be at home taking online classes. I don’t feel safe here,” they said. “But I’m poor and I need to make a financial decision. I can’t afford to get a degree without free housing, and I don’t think they’d give me a position next year if I go online this year. So, I’m stuck here in what might as well be a plague ward.”
Residents are expected to start moving in on Aug. 27, with classes set to start Sept. 2. Resident assistants have been in their halls for a week undergoing training.