The iron arch donning Saint Louis University's name on West Pine and Grand Avenue.
One year ago, as COVID-19 swept into Saint Louis University’s campus, the administration moved swiftly to set up quarantine housing and strict health protocols on campus. While the safeguards were intended to protect students from infection, students were soon exposed to the poor conditions of SLU’s isolation housing and the alleged mistreatment of Residential Advisors.
On May 26, 2020, SLU’s administration chose to allow over 11,000 students to return to the university, despite an increase in COVID-19 infections since the campus' initial lockdown.
Restrictions were steadily lifted. In August, the wrought-iron gates of Saint Louis University creaked open for the school year once again, allowing a flood of students to move back to campus for an in-person fall semester. After a warm, socially distanced welcome, however, the mood shifted— and it became clear that SLU's focus on preventing COVID-19 was key to its plan for keeping the campus open for the remainder of the school year.
In a plethora of emails from university administration to the student body throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the messaging began to transform from upbeat communications to a more harsh, reprimanding tone.
One email from early February, entitled “Breaking point or turning point?”, detailed that SLU was “on the brink of implementing severe COVID-19 restrictions because some students, it appears, have just given up." The email explained that students should have “no more beer-pong parties,” among a list of other flagrant actions.
The email continued: “Don’t spend Mardi Gras ‘day drinking’ instead of going to class. (Yes, we’ve heard about that plan.) You asked for more mental health days in the calendar, and February 17 is the first one. Use it as it was intended, not recovering from a day of partying,” wrote Debra Rudder Lohe, the Interim Vice President for Student Development at SLU at the time.
“Come on. You know better,” Lohe added.
This pressure to bring case numbers down landed hardest on resident advisors of the campus’ residence halls. They deal with COVID-19 safeguard violations first-hand.
One resident advisor who has worked for the university for two years detailed the dismal conditions of her stay at Grand Forest Apartment quarantine housing. (The student, Abigail, chose to remain anonymous in this story for fear of losing their job at the university.)
At one point, Abigail was randomly selected to be tested for COVID-19. When the test came back positive, she says, she was rushed into isolation housing at midnight, where she would stay for the next 14 days.
When she arrived at her temporary new home, the bathroom door was locked and the bed, which was without sheets, was covered in unknown stains. Luckily, she says, she was given “a roll of toilet paper."
"Thank God for that," she adds.
Things didn't improve from there. According to Abigail, she called the Student Health Center’s COVID-19 hotline to have the bathroom door opened, but they said they would have to check if this was feasible and call her back. When they did get back to her, they said someone could arrive in two hours to fix it. The situation had already become so dire that she had to break the door to use the bathroom.
The following days played out in the same vein. Abigail says she was not fed for almost two days after her arrival. When food finally arrived, it was food she explicitly stated she could not eat, as she has Coeliac’s disease and is lactose intolerant. Only in the last two days of her 14-day long quarantine did they bring her food she could eat. Even then, she states it was inedible.
“I like food and I eat anything,” Abigail says, “but I would throw away all this food. It was gross.”
Photo Courtesy of Claire
Five of the dinners provided to visitors staying in SLU's quarantine housing.
She also faced bouts with her chronic back pain while in quarantine, causing her to call the hotline and ask for Tylenol. When the medication did arrive, it was in packaging that she couldn’t open without scissors, which was not provided.
Reminiscing on her stay in isolation housing, Abigail recalls, “The first two nights I couldn’t stop crying, I was extremely depressed."
Each time she reached out for help from the Student Health Center, Abigail states that they sounded “annoyed” and like “they don’t want to be there.”
“When they just say ‘Okay, we’ll try our best,’ and then nothing happens, you just give up,” she says, “They just forgot about me.”
Abigail claims that this treatment from her employer was expected. When cases began to rise, Housing and Residence Life turned to RA’s to lead a crackdown on regulations inside dormitory buildings. She explained that she has felt unsafe in her job multiple times throughout the pandemic.
“They expect us to go in and bust parties still when people aren’t masked,” she says. "It’s not safe for anybody in that situation.”
Abigail works two jobs on top of being an RA in order to pay for college on her own. Having money and secure housing from her university is why she continues to work in this position, she says. In her RA role, she works 20 hours a week, on top of helping students on her floor, and gets paid $100 a month, with free housing and a meal plan. The $100 paycheck is taxed.
Abigail also stated that $100 was taken out of her account without her knowledge in December by Housing and Residence Life, and she hasn’t been paid the monthly stipend since. She is currently working with her boss to fix the situation.
“From the higher-ups, I don’t think they really see students as people, they mostly see numbers, and that’s it,” Abigail says.
Another student, called Beth — she too agreed to share her experiences anonymously — described a similar experience as a fellow second-year RA. Though she signed on for 20-hour work weeks, she often finds herself working more hours than expected. Many times, she says she feels taken advantage of by Housing and Residence Life because they know she needs the RA position in order to remain a student SLU.
Beth also admits to feeling uncomfortable about doing room checks for her residents and having to enter rooms that are breaking COVID-19 guidelines.
At a recent meeting with Housing and Residence Life, Beth claims that RA’s were put to blame for higher COVID-19 rates in dorms and on-campus apartments. Beth believes RA’s were never truly taught how to handle these situations in the first place
“I remember back in the fall training, people were trying to ask questions and HRL was like, ‘we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know,’ and then we never truly got any answers."
She adds, "There’s always the overall fear that I’ll get in trouble for not enforcing something properly. It feels like walking on a thin line always.”
Beth similarly remembers the mistreatment RA’s received after the Black Lives Matter protests in the the fall semester. In a document sent to all their student staff in early October, Housing and Residence Life
explained that students are protected under the Speech, Expression and Civil Discourse Policy at SLU to participate in protests.
Yet, towards the end of the document, RA's were warned that “actions taken as an individual can have an impact on your employment with HRL and action may be taken if your actions violate University policy.”
“I actually chose SLU for their social justice values,” Beth says. She now believes the university's handling of their student staff is “extremely frustrating and disappointing.”
A student called Claire, who chose to remain anonymous after sharing her negative quarantine experience with the Riverfront Times
, became sick after a night of hanging out with five other students on her floor in early November.
When one of her friends tested positive for COVID-19, Claire was moved into quarantine at Hotel Ignacio, a functioning hotel owned by SLU that was converted into isolation housing for students. Here, she received no communication from Student Health.
Hotel Ignacio, a SLU-owned hotel on Olive Boulevard, is now used for isolation housing for students exposed to COVID-19.
When she eventually did get in touch with their office, she says she was called irresponsible and talked down to.
“I was crying on the phone with Student Health for a couple days because I was getting attitude,” she says, “I felt that I was being chastised for catching a virus that I had no control over.”
Due to initially testing negative, Claire says she would call every day to beg to take another COVID-19 test, in hopes that it would improve her care from the Student Health Center.
“I just wanted someone to call me and ask if I was okay, besides my mom,” she says.
When she was given the opportunity to be tested again, she asked if a golf cart could pick her up for the half-mile walk to the Student Health office.
“The person that was on the phone was like ‘what? Are you going to get in trouble for walking or something?’ and I was like ‘I can’t breathe, I have COVID,’” she says.
Making the walk to the Student Health Center, Beth officially tested positive, and finally started to receive calls from nurses. Still, the remainder of her stay in isolation endured as less than ideal.
“The food was absolutely terrible,” she recalls, “I wouldn’t eat dinner because it was so bad.”
Each day at noon, Claire received a prepackaged sandwich and chips, which she would ration out for the rest of the day because of how unappetizing she believed the dinners to be. As for activities to fill her two-week stay, the TV in the hotel room was broken.
“I would literally sit at the desk and look out the window and watch cars, all day, every day for two weeks. That’s hard for a person.”
On her last day in quarantine, Claire asked to be discharged as early as possible. The COVID-19 hotline told her that a golf cart would arrive at 8 a.m. to pick her and her stuff up. Around 10 a.m., there were no signs of a ride coming for her. She eventually called a friend with a car to pick her up. To this day, she’s still waiting for communication from Student Health on her ride.
Following her quarantine experience, Claire states that “I’ve had my mom ask me multiple times if I want to transfer. I feel, at this point, that it’s a numbers thing.”
In response to the descriptions of quarantine conditions and student worker mistreatment, Sarah Cunningham, SLU’s VP of Student Development, said the administration is committed to improving their support for students during the pandemic. She points to a survey of 215 students who were quarantined or isolated — the majority rated their experiences as positive, Cunningham says.
“It’s important to know that we are continually taking feedback from students into consideration and adjusting our services accordingly. And if we see a pattern of difficulty emerge, we pivot to a new approach,” she says, “We are constantly learning and always striving to do better. And we will.”
attempted to contact SLU’s Housing and Residence Life department, but the department provided no response.
That sort of silence is familiar to the students interviewed for this story, who each said that they want their voice to be heard and understood by the university administration, with the aim of improving SLU’s campus for future students.
"They don’t care about how you’re feeling when you get it,” Claire says. “Everyone’s a human being, they don’t want to get the virus.”
She adds, "I don’t feel that I was respected at all."