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Staff cutbacks, limited access to services and safety rules among changes implemented

Students conversing in front of Edens Hall in Jan. 2021. Students are only allowed to interact with each other outside of their rooms while wearing masks. // Photo by Elisa Espinoza

By Elisa Espinoza

COVID-19 and college do not mix. Normally bustling campuses now sit quiet, and once social student housing has become a shell of its former lively self.

Western Washington University is not immune to these changes, and with fewer students living on campus, Western’s housing budget has been reduced.

Western’s housing budget is self-sustaining, so the money received from students using the housing services is invested back into the operation of the program.  

Western’s director of communications and marketing Paul Cocke explained in an email interview how the budget has been adjusted to withstand the pandemic.  

Some of the changes include hiring freezes, cut back on expenses, delayed expenditures on major capital projects and the arrangement of more favorable rates for services like dining, laundry, cable TV and garbage pick-up, Cocke said. 

To ensure safety, Cocke said housing occupancy remains at 25% of normal operation. Students are not allowed to have roommates and can only interact with people living in their building while wearing masks. 

Services like staffing and dining have gone through drastic changes due to budget reductions and COVID-19 restrictions, said Vicki Vanderwerf, the associate director of Residence Life.  

As the different eateries on campus remain closed, dining is limited to the dining halls which have limited hours of operation, Vanderwerf said. 

“We have much less staff on campus than we normally would in a traditional academic year in terms of resident advisers, apartment advisers and resident assistants,” Vanderwerf said. 

Resident assistants are some of the most impacted workers.

“Their job is completely different than maybe what a typical year would look like. Because there’s less staffing, they’re on call more,” Vanderwerf said. 

Nicolas Mendez, a second-year student at Western, has been living on campus for the last two years and recently became a resident adviser for Edens Hall. 

Mendez said when the pandemic started, the environment felt chaotic because students weren’t sure of their housing status and there were few restrictions. 

As the university progressed to adopt COVID-19 guidelines for housing, Mendez said living on campus feels calmer. 

Mendez said resident advisers now have to enforce COVID-19 rules and take night rounds more often. 

“When a resident adviser would normally have to go and do rounds at night and check on the hall once a week, now we do it at least three to five times a week,” said Mendez.

Edens Hall usually has at least four resident advisers available to support students. Currently, Mendez is the only one attending the residence.

“It definitely feels like it is more work just because we objectively have more people per resident adviser and with that just also comes more responsibilities,” Mendez said. 

Shared spaces in residence halls have strict social distancing guidelines, which has changed the college experience on campus. 

Mendez said students have many restrictions and have to schedule their time for some shared spaces like laundry or communal showers. 

“That just feels very restrictive and again, is kind of lowering the whole idea of [being] on campus and you can set your own rules and responsibilities,” he said. 

There is not a national trend on how universities are handling their housing business, but many schools are suffering financially, said Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at the University of Ohio whose research is focused on the economics of education. 

Even if some universities like Western structure their housing budget as a self-sustaining operation, the institution would have to cover the program’s economic responsibilities if needed, Vedder said. 

“If the housing people get in trouble and find it hard to pay their bonds or their bills, particularly their interest rates on money they borrowed to build the dorms, sometimes the universities have to pick up that difference,” he said.

Vedder said running a housing program with budgeting and COVID-19 limitations is not sustainable in the long run for the many universities that are already facing lower enrollments and struggling financially. 

As the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, many people are hoping universities can have some normalcy back by the end of the year. 

“That’s kind of a hopeful, optimistic interpretation. Whether it will come to pass we don’t know yet,” Vedder said. 

Vanderwerf said the housing department is constantly finding ways to reinvent itself to adapt to COVID-19.

“Overall, we are operating in a different mindset in terms of thinking about budget. How to do more with less and thinking about how we can continue reducing our expenses, but making sure we are serving students well,” Vanderwerf said. 

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