Stanford, are you really ready to open?

Opinion by Caroline Kim
Aug. 7, 2020, 2:00 p.m.

As an incoming residential assistant (RA) for an all-frosh dorm, I often find myself throwing my tied hands up in exasperation with the University’s updates on fall. In addition to the lack of clarity provided about the upcoming year for all students, I am struggling with the deafening silence from ResEd on what staffing will look like.

Like the reopening (and reclosing) of states, college reopening plans have been haphazard and unstandardized. Some schools will mandate testing, some will not. Some keep changing their plans, keeping students on their toes. Outbreaks have already occurred among college athletes who have returned to campuses, and over 6000 cases have been linked to colleges before classes have started at most of them.

Stanford, along with other schools, seems to be grappling with the question of ‘how can we reopen safely?’ After a June 29 announcement detailing the plan of bringing back half of the undergraduate class every quarter, a July 22 email from Re-Approaching Stanford cast doubt on the current plan in light of current pandemic conditions, advising students to “have a back-up plan for housing,” “purchase refundable tickets for travel” and bring “two suitcases and a backpack.”

The only conclusions I can draw from these statements are 1) Stanford is not confident students will be allowed on campus and 2) if students come to campus, they might be kicked off with short notice.

Stanford has trapped RAs in an uncomfortable position. We want to be there for our residents, but the University is demanding our commitment before telling us what risks we will be assuming or what to expect from the job. I am disappointed in Stanford for forcing our hands. 

By the end of Friday, Aug. 7, RAs must apply for the Autumn Housing Allocation if they want to staff. This is before we know what classes will be offered in the Fall (released August 17) or what the final fall plan will be (released mid- to late August). The very security of our positions is unclear in the event that fall is remote — an email from Cheryl Brown, Assistant Vice Provost for ResEd, on June 29 said, “we will not be able to allow student staff to work remotely.” Will we keep our jobs if Stanford decides to go fully online? 

Even if Stanford sticks to the original plan, ResEd has offered no information on the expectations of student staff, except in a July 22 email from Brown that stated, “house staff will be asked to model and help uphold these [community compact] expectations in the residences.” 

I knew staffing was going to be hard. And I know these are unprecedented times. But we deserve to know some general ideas on what will be expected of us. Will we be asked to strictly police my residents to follow as-of-yet unknown guidelines? How will that affect residents trusting us when other issues arise? What will this campus compact entail, and why must we implicitly agree to it by applying for housing before seeing a single word of it?

As much as I would love to have some semblance of my senior year on the Farm, the government has unfortunately failed us in containing the coronavirus, and even having only half the undergraduate population on campus seems too risky. I just can’t believe freshmen will forgo the parties, sex and general shenanigans that make up part of many college students’ experiences. Suddenly granting teenagers independence from their families after six months in quarantine does not seem like a great idea.

The University’s plan (or lack thereof) for reopening speaks to a larger issue of what it prioritizes as fall nears. As more and more students demand clarity from administration, the price of its ambiguity is one that will not be distributed evenly. RAs, service workers, instructors — the people on whom Stanford depends — are most at risk. The communication we have received paints a dire portrait of who will bear this burden. 

Despite laying off over 200 workers, Stanford assures us “Nutritious meals will be pre-packed … Common spaces … and high-touch areas … [will] receive enhanced cleaning and disinfecting twice daily, seven days a week,” in the July 22 Re-Approaching Stanford email. I cannot imagine this increased workload for a smaller staff that was already overworked before the pandemic is in the best interests of our workers, but I’m sure it will put less strain on our nearly $28 billion endowment. 

RAs are also at risk. If ResEd tasks us with the responsibility of engaging with our residents partly in person and the University does not devise an effective plan for testing in a timely manner, contact tracing and quarantining, we will get sick. If Stanford decides we will be the primary enforcers of coronavirus restrictions, we will be spread too thin trying to balance supporting our residents emotionally, policing them and taking care of our own health. 

Stanford is carefully balancing the interests of its shareholders and opening in the fall is the most profitable thing to do. The University has inspired no confidence in me that it will be able to bring students back safely, but I now see the school’s overwhelming concern for the bottom line. I still want to be an RA to help frosh make the best of a bad situation, but perhaps going virtual is going to be the safest way to do it.

If you’ve got a real plan, Stanford, I’m all ears.

Contact Caroline Kim at ckim99 ‘at’

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Caroline is a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering and minoring in Modern Languages. Some of her hobbies include baking (vegan) banana bread, dancing and thinking about how to make scientific knowledge more accessible to society.

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