Understanding the updated COVID-19 Residential Policy

boys play poker
A group of friends begins their nightly poker game in the Bell-Young Hall common room at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS) sent an email Jan. 31 stating that common rooms would be reopened for students to use while masked. In another email, REHS announced Feb. 7 that cross-hall visitation can be resumed. In light of the COVID-19 omicron variant and the increase in national and local COVID-19 cases that it caused, REHS had originally instated these two major policy changes for the beginning of the Spring 2022 semester.

Isaiah J. Thomas, director of REHS, said the primary factors informing the previous rules for the spring semester were the suggestions of the COVID Operations Group (COG), the increase in case numbers and many reported COVID-19 Community Compact violations. Thomas identified unmasked residence hall interaction as the most frequent compact violation during the Fall 2021 semester.

“Based upon the fall semester, we saw that most of our COVID violations were students not wearing masks in the residence halls,” Thomas said. “In order to do our part to mitigate the spread of omicron, we asked students to temporarily not hang out in lounges for the first few weeks with the goal of, as soon as we were able to, removing that restriction.”

A two-page, community-written document, the Community Compact outlines basic expectations regarding the pandemic and preventative measures, such as wearing masks, testing for COVID-19 and washing hands frequently. Thomas said he strongly recommends students familiarize themselves with the document in its entirety, with masking as the most important guideline.

“Not wearing masks is one of the biggest ways COVID-19 is spreading; that has not changed with omicron,” Thomas said.

REHS values and considers the feedback of students, primarily through working closely with Residential Advisers (RAs). According to Thomas, RAs are the sources through which REHS understands the student-resident experience. RAs are able to survey the experiences of their residents and hear from them in situations such as one-on-one conferences; Thomas said the resulting summary of student feedback that RAs are able to provide to REHS is invaluable during these times.

karlo and jacob
Karlo Papa (first year) and Jacob Hamermesh (first year) sit on a couch in the Bell-Young Hall common room at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

“Because of student feedback through the RAs, and the summary feedback, we knew that many students were [like], ‘Not being able to visit my friend in another residence, that seems extreme or a lot.’ We knew that,” Thomas said. “And so that’s why we wanted that rule to be temporary.”

Thomas said REHS is receptive to direct student feedback concerning COVID-19 safety from students both this semester and beyond, especially considering the uncertainty of the pandemic outlook for the 2022-2023 academic year.

“We are an open office and we encourage students to connect with us to talk about [safety policies],” Thomas said. “And certainly, as we start to think about housing for next year, there’s a big mystery. We don’t know what COVID-19 is going to be like next year. If students have feedback, ideas, things for us to consider, please let us know so we can think about that.”

According to Karlo Papa (first year), the closure of common rooms and cross-dorm visitation negatively impacted his social circle that frequented the Bell-Young common room for poker game nights.

“The first week or two just didn’t feel like college,” Papa said. “You’re just kind of in your room. There just wasn’t much social interaction in common rooms where normally it’s pretty lively.”

Jacob Hamermesh (first year), a participant in the Bell-Young poker nights, echoed Papa’s sentiments.

“I mean, we were playing up to like, the last day we went home. So then we came back, and we couldn’t come in the common rooms and play,” Hamermesh said. “It was definitely upsetting. This is sort of our way of winding down after a long school day after finishing our work.”

A few weeks into the spring semester, there are some mixed reactions to the lifting of dorm restrictions. Papa and Hamermesh are satisfied with the news, and the group has resumed poker nights in Bell-Young Hall.

bella owen
Bella Owen (junior) shares her opinions on the COVID-19 Student Compact in the Haines Hall common room at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

Bella Owen (junior) said she feels skeptical about the reopening of common rooms, as the danger of unmasked interaction in these areas is still present.

Thomas said he encourages community members to work together to preserve the campus experience in a safe manner and trust each other to follow guidelines such as masking. On REHS’ end, he said he wants to remain transparent with the student population as potential needs for new policies emerge.

“We’re a community in this together. And in my role, I’m incredibly grateful for students who are complying, and in my opinion, are some of the best representatives of following COVID-19 guidelines on campus,” Thomas said. “It demonstrates to me that Oxy students care about each other; they care about the community, and we just hope that our policies reflect that so they can continue to care and have a really wonderful academic experience.”