Letter: UMass’ reopening plan endangers RAs and PMs

Risking our lives should not be necessary

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(Parker Peters / Daily Collegian)

By Letter Contributors

Being a Resident Assistant or Peer Mentor is a true honor. In our roles as RAs and PMs over the years, we have built meaningful relationships with dozens of residents and fostered living-learning communities. Thanks to our status as unionized workers, we are able to collectively bargain for dignified working conditions and wages.

But we want to be clear: this job is not worth dying for. And that is essentially what the University of Massachusetts is asking us to do in its reopening plan.

The UMass reopening plan allows any student with an existing housing reservation to choose to return to campus, despite most courses being conducted online. At an online Residential Life forum held on July 9, it was revealed that more than 50 percent of the residential population intends to return. As such, Residential Life is calling for all 500 RAs and PMs to return to campus in some capacity.

RAs and PMs will be expected to police students and help enforce the “UMass Agreement” which outlines strict social distancing policies. It is impossible for an RA or PM to safely enforce these guidelines without risking exposure to COVID-19, not to mention that this is an unprecedented increase in the position’s workload. How can RAs or PMs even enforce this agreement? What if residents refuse to comply? Calling the UMass Police Department won’t help – the many problems with law enforcement aside, you can’t police the spread of a virus.

On top of these unrealistic expectations, UMass refuses to offer RAs or PMs hazard pay, let alone allow them the option to work remotely and escape the petri dish that our campus is about to become.

This reopening plan is extremely dangerous. Approximately 6,000 to 7,000 students will be living in close quarters during a pandemic while the United States may be on track to see 100,000 new cases per day. Even in Massachusetts, the rate of infection spread has risen to 1.07, meaning cases will likely increase. If UMass chooses to reopen as planned, students will likely get sick. Do not be under the illusion that young people are immune to this virus. A student at Penn State has already died.

With the recent resurgence of the coronavirus, some universities are already reversing their foolish reopening plans. If UMass continues this course, an outbreak is bound to occur, and RAs and PMs will be caught in the middle of it.

The above picture is an apt description of UMass’ reopening plan. This plan is a gimmick meant to ensure that UMass continues receiving housing and meal plan payments. That this plan adequately accommodates student safety is wishful thinking. RAs and PMs are not pandemic police. Those who return to campus to work should be given hazard pay (either increased wages or free housing on top of their wages), while those who want to work remotely should be able to do so.

Our federal government has gone to great lengths to normalize mass death and sickness. As the co-chairs of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union, we refuse to normalize putting the University’s profit over student lives. We demand that RAs and PMs be given the option to work remotely, that those who work on-site be given hazard pay, and that UMass seriously consider reversing a reopening plan that will only worsen this pandemic.

Nat Luftman, Alice Troop, James Cordero
Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union