Every year, the VIU Student Residences welcomes over 500 new and returning students from across the world and invites them to build communities and make long-lasting connections. With new COVID-19 rules and regulations, this year will look very different for the “Reslife” community.
Back in March when VIU sent out emails informing the student body that the campus would be closing due to COVID-19, the VIU residence made sure they did everything possible to stay open.
Student Residences never shut down during the summer, so it became manager of VIU Student Housing Ian Johnsrude’s new job to implement changes around the residences to keep students safe. Working with guidelines put in place by the provincial government, Student Residences started with simple changes in the spring. Common areas and kitchens were locked from 9 pm to 7 am, student, Community Leaders (CLs) conducted hourly sanitizing shifts to clean commonly touched areas, and community events were moved to digital platforms.
By the end of July, the BC government released the “COVID-19 Go-Forward Guidelines for BC’s Post-Secondary Sector” which outlined how student housing can function safely. From these guidelines, VIU residences made the VIU Residences’ Service Addendum for Students.
The addendum outlines the four different stages of the “Residence COVID-19 Restart,” which mimics whichever stage the provincial government is in. Currently, BC is in stage three of the BC Restart Plan, and so is Student Residence.
The addendum reads that, “[i]f the BC Government assesses that the province is to return to a previous phase of the BC’s Restart Plan, VIU Residences’ services and requirements will revert to match those as outlined in the phases of this document,” meaning that if the BC government falls back to stage two of the BC’s Restart Plan, so will the “Residence COVID-19 Restart.”
Some regulations that can be expected in stage three are:
- All international students moving into Student Residence must go through a 14-day isolation period, which the resident must make arrangements for before the move-in date;
- Guests are only permitted in the buildings by special circumstances and must be signed in and approved at the front desk;
- Groups of five or more cannot gather in indoor common spaces, and groups of up to 20 people can only gather outside as long as proper social distancing can be followed.
The addendum also states that “[s]tudents who breach addendum requirements may have their VIU Residences Agreement terminated and will be required to leave VIU Residences.” Residents will also be required to wear a mask whenever they are in the hallways, common spaces, and kitchens, and are unable to maintain physical distance. It will be a new job for the CLs to monitor the common spaces and make sure everyone is staying two metres apart.
Community Leaders will also have to find new ways to do monthly building and floor events over digital platforms, as community events are a big part of the “Reslife” aspect of student housing. These events are intended to build a sense of community for residents where they can meet new people, acquire new skills, and learn new tips on topics like studying and safe sex. On top of organizing monthly building/floor events, CLs also juggle conflict resolution, crisis interventions, and handling Community Standard violations.
When the campus shut down in March and the VIU Residences started moving toward their summer student housing, it became a new job for residence management along with the CLs working over the summer to find ways to organize events on a digital platform.
Keith Johnson was finishing his second year of being a CL and continuing his role into the summer when he had to start hosting online events.
“I would have up to 30 or 40 residents that would show up to my events,” Johnson said about the events he hosted pre-COVID. “I actually did a lot of food-based events. I really enjoyed making food for my residents and bringing it to their rooms.”
When the events had to be moved online, Johnson started live streaming video games that residents could join in on. Those events would get around ten participants, but when live music events hosted by Johnson and another CL streamed on the Student Residences Facebook page, a typical 250 viewers would join the audience.
The change can be difficult for new CLs to get used to, but Johnson said, “it can also be a lot of fun if you’re presenting those struggles in a certain light where it can be kind of fun, like, everybody’s almost in this together.”
Along with the guidelines, Johnsrude said the biggest change “has been the elimination of double rooms.” Eliminating double rooms and turning them into single rooms brought the number of beds across nine buildings from 586 to 368.
Along with the cut of the double rooms, a 20-bed townhouse was off-lined, Johnsrude said. The townhouse has now become a place where students can do their 14-day quarantine safely. The 20 rooms are offered to any international student coming to Canada that must complete a 14-day quarantine before they go to their other housing, or for a resident who may show COVID-like symptoms during their stay and need to self-quarantine.
Johnsrude said that Student Residences has set up a portal where students “can log onto and indicate if they’re sick, and what symptoms they have and what support they might need.”
Johnsrude said residents will get priority at the student medical clinic on campus and that “the practitioners over there have the ability to sort of expedite processes as far as making sure that they are getting the medical care they need.”
After a resident starts the quarantine process, there are daily follow-ups to make sure the resident has the medical and mental health support they need.
“I don’t know if self-isolation and being sick alone in a residence room is a fun situation to be in and it can definitely take a toll on the student,” Johnsrude said.
The cost of the stay is $50–60 a night, based on the needs of the student. The “Quarantine (Self-Isolation) Resource Guide and Expectations” made by the university stated the fees are to cover access to unlimited free Wi-Fi, 24-hour on-site staff through various online platforms, linens, and three meals a day brought to the student’s room. The meals are made on-site at the campus cafeteria.
Although the cafeteria will continue to make food, things will look different this year. Michael Taylor, the manager of campus food services at VIU, said the campus food services had to make several big changes for the school year due to COVID and a loss of student registration. Taylor said Building 185, also known as the lower cafeteria, will not be open to the public and has been repurposed for baking only.
The main cafeteria will not be in service for food, but Taylor said, “a student who has trouble accessing Wi-Fi or having a safe place to study can come to building 300. There are 50 available spots to study to supplement the [fewer] spaces in the library.” Microwaves will still be available in the upper cafeteria, and all food made in the cafeteria will be sold at the new Mount Benson Store inside the VIU Bookstore.
Food items like sandwiches, soups, and pizzas will be made each morning and brought to the store. Main-course meals like carved ham or ribs will be made fresh and kept frozen until purchase. Taylor said the campus store will not be doing meal plans similar to what they did in the past, but students or parents can “go on to the campus store website and purchase a gift card to the campus store.” The gift cards can be used for food services or other items sold in the book store.
Taylor said the Mount Benson Store will be open from 8–4 pm Monday–Friday, so anyone wanting to purchase dinner will have to do so before 4 pm. He also said the number of services can change with the volume of the students on campus, and they will “reopen outlets as we go, but this is just what we’re starting out with until we know how many folks actually show up. As crazy as that sounds.”
As a first-year student staying in residence, it might sound awful to have to preheat your dinner every night before the kitchen gets locked and eat it alone in your room because the common room is full. However, VIU Student Residences is still working hard on building community and allowing everyone to make life-long connections—just in new and different ways.
As the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry has said in her briefings, “this is not forever, this is just for now. Let us all be kind, be calm, and stay safe.”