Irene Thompson Interviewed by Paige Van Dyke
What position did you have at the university when the pandemic started, and what did a typical day of work look like for you?
Perfect. In March 2020, when the pandemic was officially declared, I was director of student housing services, so a typical day for me would be to come to work. Usually, I arrived between 8:30 and 9:00 o’clock in the morning. My office was in Maritime Hall, and I would meet with the people in the office or meet to find out how residence students are doing. Typically, I’d be sitting on various committees on campus, so I would be going back and forth to committee work and meetings with staff so we can plan how best to support the students who lived in residence.
Okay, great. How did the initial shutdown affect your job, and what issues needed to get sorted out at the very beginning?
It was very interesting because I happened to be on vacation when it was declared. I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean at the time and got notified that the university was going to be shutting down, and it meant that I was needing to correspond back and forth with my counterparts that were still on campus. We had been given the direction that all students who lived in residence, and there were probably about 4,800 students in residence at that time, needed to be sent home, but there was a recognition that we had about 200 students that weren’t able to get home because borders had been shut down. Those would be our international students or some students that were domestic but that didn’t have a home to go back to, so we needed to make sure that we had accommodations in place for those students. It was a bit challenging for us because even though they had a place in residence already, the university itself was shutting down, so it meant that we had to consolidate them all in one location, and that was into our East Residence Townhouses. Trying to provide support for those students who were now homeless from having to relocate and bring them together, making sure we could get them pots, pans, and equipment to be cooking for themselves because there were no dining halls that were open, being able to provide those kinds of emotional supports for them, and having residence life staff that would still be in place–all those kinds of things were left to us to do within a matter of days. For me personally, I was trying to provide assistance from my cruise ship to those individuals who were on the ground who were actually trying to put all this stuff in place.
What were the solutions that you came up with for those issues?
As I mentioned, the students who had no place to go were held in place in their residence assignments until we could get sufficient numbers of townhouses cleared out, cleaned, and brought them back into place. We reached out to the alumni affairs and development office and asked if alumni might be willing to help us purchase cooking supplies and things for the international students that had to stay, so they made a fantastic donation to us. We were able to go out and purchase dining/cooking types of things, pots and pans, and dishes and stuff to be able to put in each of the townhouses, so the students were able to make use of those. We reached out to hospitality services on campus, and they very quickly put together grocery items and stuff and gave us dishes and things that we could use. Between the students that we had on the main campus, so our undergraduate students, some grad students, and two family housing populations that were also living on campus, we were able to help them distribute perishable food products that could be redistributed to students who were not going anywhere who could make use of them here on campus.
So hospitality services closed?
The whole campus closed. The only department that stayed open was student housing. Some of the office staff worked from home, but some of our on-the-ground staff, like residence life managers and stuff live on campus, so they worked on campus. The senior managers continued to work on campus as well, so myself, as director, and two associate directors also continued to come into the office to help support the function.
I imagine it would be a little difficult for students in residence to transition from having their food made for them every single day to having to do everything all on their own.
Well, it certainly wasn’t planned for because the majority of students have a dining plan, and those that don’t spend it when they're in residence carry it forward to the next year, so they’ve got it available for them. We have East Village Townhouses and East Residence that are the two areas where students don’t have to be on a meal plan. They just cook for themselves, so students that would come from that area would not need to worry about the other stuff, but since they’re relocated from the entire system, we had to make sure that they could look after themselves.
That would definitely be a challenge trying to figure out how to implement that, especially in just a few days. Now, I had to guess what to ask you because I’m not entirely sure what your position here is, but would it be correct for me to say that you’re in charge of student engagement events and stuff like that, or is it just housing?
No. Do you mean at the time or my position right now?
Was it different at the time?
It is. At the time, I was director of student housing, so I oversaw the whole department. It would look after the facilities parts of it and the desk operations. It would look after the residence life program and admissions business program and stuff like that, so indirectly, the events were staffed by people that would report to me.
Do you feel like morale was down on campus during the pandemic? How did you see your mental health and the student’s mental health impacted in the midst of restrictions and online learning?
Absolutely. So we’re now talking about the whole time frame of COVID that we were closed down, not just March 2020? Most definitely. The morale on campus has been down over that period. So much of the energy on campus comes from students: the day-to-day interactions that they have, the spirit that they bring, the enthusiasm, and just the energy of people moving back and forth between classes. In that time frame, the campus was, for lack of a better word, barren. There were very few people that were actually here on campus, and you could walk up and down Winegard Walk or other areas, and you wouldn’t see anybody because people were working remotely, and students were taking classes virtually. We had a couple of hundred people initially, and then the next year, we were able to have 900 students in residence. The following year after that, we were able to have probably about 3,000 people living in residence, so that gradually built up, but there was nobody else here. We had those students in residence, so there was life on one part of campus but not really across the entire campus. Students that were living in residence were very much restricted in their movements as well. We weren’t allowing them to be gathering in places. They weren’t supposed to have more than one other person visiting with them in their residence room, they had to wear masks and take other measures, and we didn’t allow gatherings in lounges and stuff like that. It was not the atmosphere that you would traditionally think of students living in residence where people are bumping into each other, and they’d be having social events and other things on campus. When you distance people like that, it’s kind of sad. The morale definitely dropped. Different departments on campus, and student housing was one of those, would try to do virtual events, so we had virtual events planned for students. A residence assistant would try to do their job virtually, much like what they would try to do in person, where they would use Microsoft Teams to try and have an engagement opportunity with people, so we were figuring out how to mix and mingle. With staff, we tried to do the same kind of thing. We tried to figure out ways to engage people where they could have conversations and stuff online. We had our appreciation dinners for the winter break, where we invited people to have food which we sponsored, and people would eat virtually with us, so we would try to have those kinds of engagement opportunities, or they’d have after-hours types of social breaks with one another. Coffee breaks and stuff like that. It’s just not the same as having people in person. You just can’t have multiple conversations at one go happening over Microsoft Teams that you could have if you were face-to-face in the same room. I would say definitely the morale was down.
So you find it is a very different dynamic trying to do those sorts of events online?
Most definitely. There were some events that took place, for example, experiential learning on campus had fantastic take-up of their workshops for career development and stuff like that. Lots and lots of people wanted to participate in that form, so they had record numbers of people wanting to get involved in those kinds of activities. At orientation, when they had those kinds of virtual events, absolutely, but as the semester carried on, I think attendance dropped off in social types of events because people didn’t want that. They wanted to be there face-to-face.
Back to morale in residence, you were saying that people couldn’t gather in lounges and they couldn’t really interact with other students. I just want to mention that I almost feel like some of that has kind of carried over for me because I’m in first year and am living in residence, and I’ve spoken to my brother who is in fourth year here, and his residence experience was impacted. We’ve kind of noticed that our experiences of residence seem to be very different because he would explain that people would be running around everywhere, and everyone would be talking to everyone, and in the first few weeks, people would have their doors open, and they’d be going out and meeting people and everything, but now, in my experience, I haven’t really noticed that, and I feel like a lot of people have been more quiet and reserved and there’s not as much of that interaction. I just think that it is interesting that it is still affecting it now.
It is. I think the experience that your brother has relayed to you is the experience that we were trying to get for students, and we did accomplish that for many, many years. COVID timeframe has changed it because students like you were in high school a number of years before this, and your social activity changed in high school, so now you and your peers have carried that on to the residence environment as well. Our student staff have experienced that kind of stuff as well, so anybody who has been with us as a residence assistant for more than one year participated in those time frames where they needed to be the ones that said, “we can’t gather,” can’t do this, and that, and whatever. Some of that stuff carries on with people as well, so it will take time for it to go back to what your brother’s experience was, where people freely felt like they could move around, interact, and gather. We could plan accordingly. We’re still quite sensitive to the spread of COVID. Not everybody is vaccinated. We have all the new variants that are coming through, so we’re trying to minimize some of the opportunities for the spread of COVID or other communicable diseases.
Absolutely. It will certainly take a few years to it to transition back to what it was.
For me, it’s kind of heartbreaking when I see that kind of stuff. When I was in university, I lived in residence and clearly the experience I had there set me on my path to where I am today, but residences are designed for interaction: the physical construction of the buildings, how hallways are designed, how lounges and stuff like that are designed. They are designed so that people interact and they mingle. Some of it is forced, and some of it is accidental in how that happens, so when we have to go deliberately to the opposite end of things and keep people away from one another, that just changes things completely, and it's kind of heartbreaking to have seen that happen over the last number of years. I’m glad it’s switching around, but as I said, it’ll take a little bit of time.
When people started returning to campus, how did that change your work? What new measures were put in place to keep people safe, and what was the process of making these decisions?
In residence, most of the time, people were here all the time, so we always had to be very cognizant of what needed to happen there, so we erected the plexiglass screens with cutouts so that people could interact with residence desks. We had our staff wearing masks. If they needed to wear gloves to do anything in particular, we had that. We put hand sanitizer stations all over the place. We had cleaning supplies for individuals. We had PPE that our staff would wear when they were interacting in different fashions. It was a challenge for some staff, like some of our permanent staff, to want to come back because of the fear associated with COVID and the recognition that the pandemic was not completely over yet, but we needed to get back on the ground. We, in student housing, phased things coming back, so we went from 2020 where everybody was off in March, and then in September, we needed to bring a certain number of people back. I think at that point, we had about 900 people that came back, and we spread them across campus into single rooms. Nobody had to share a room with anybody else, and that was to give people private spaces. Again, we set up those rules and regulations where you can’t gather, and you can’t interact with people beyond one or two people at a time. The following year we were able to relax a little bit more and introduce people into double room situations. We were trying to minimize the number of people that would share a bathroom together, so we were trying to lower those kinds of numbers so that you stop the spread of illness between individuals. The last group to come back for student housing was the office staff. They didn’t come back until the university was reopening as a whole, but otherwise, we phased things in. We had a recognition that some students didn’t have the capacity to be successful working from home or from a distance or whatever. They needed to make sure that they could access the reliable wifi here on campus, or their home life may not have been sufficient. If they have multiple siblings and parents all trying to work from home, that may have been a challenge as well. We allowed those students to come back to campus and to take their classes from here.
Would that have been the 900 people living in residence?
That was the 900, and then as we were expanding a little bit more, we loosened that up a little bit more.
Okay, so it was more for people that had special circumstances?
Yes. People were really encouraged to stay home and work from home and stuff like that, but we set up those special circumstances. People sort of self-screened themselves, and then they would apply to us, and then we would see whether they fit the criteria.
It certainly doesn’t work for everyone. A lot of people aren’t built for online learning. When did you come back to campus?
I probably spent the first two months working from home, and after that, I just came back to campus myself because my feeling was that as director of student housing, if I had staff working on campus, then as a leader, I needed to be on campus as well, so I came back. One of our associate directors responsible for facilities never left. He stayed on campus the whole time because his staff were instrumental in working in our buildings. Our associate director for residence life came back around the same time as I did as well, so it was the three of us in a big office, so there was lots of room and lots of space. We had all the PPE that we required as well.
How did you find working from home for those two months? Did you not like it?
No, I didn’t enjoy it. I’m a social person, so I like to have interaction. I’m not set up at home to work in an office type of an environment. My husband is in sales, so he has a little space he designates as his office, so we’re both sharing the internet and stuff. I worked at the end of my dining room table, so I set up my computer and worked from that end. Then at lunchtime, I would move two seats over and have my meal in the middle of the table and then move back into my corner where I would have my work environment. It was a hard thing. It’s hard to put some limits between your personal and work life when the whole environment is about work. It was a time that was highly stressful as well, and I needed to keep up to date with what was going on, so it was hard to set those kinds of boundaries and limits for work-life balance.
I understand that. For me, for online learning during high school, I found that when you’re doing work at the dining room table, and you’re eating there, it’s like what’s stopping you from putting on Netflix in the background? It’s kind of hard to stay focused. What was your experience of the Omicron breakout in December 2021 and January 2022? What challenges did it bring?
In student housing, we had just started relaxing a little bit more in terms of people interacting with one another, and then all of a sudden, when that came back into prominence, we had to then push out restrictions again. It was a challenge because if you start off a year with restrictions in place, it’s much easier than to have to change things midstream, so it was hard to get the students to comply in the residence environment because they’d had a more relaxed environment and then they had to be pushed back. It was difficult for residence life staff because they’re the peers of the students living in residence. In most cases, they are one, maybe two, years older than the students that they’re living with, and all of a sudden they become the enforcers, who, on the front ranks, have to tell people what to do and not to do. They got a lot of resistance from people, so it became very challenging.
I can imagine that would be difficult if they are used to it one way and all of a sudden you have to put in those restrictions. You touched on a lot of things, but what do you find were the most challenging aspects of the pandemic as a whole?
I think people need to be in close proximity with other individuals. They need to know there are individuals there who care about them, who are there to support them, and who are there to guide them. Without having people actively here on campus or ready access to individuals, it became a challenge to feel like we could do those kinds of things and that we could provide the same degree of support that your brother may have had in his experience here on campus, so I think that was really difficult. We knew that there are individuals who are also very fearful of what’s going on, and that staff worried about what they might catch from their interactions with students and what they may bring home to their families. We knew that we needed to be here on campus, yet some of our staff had home situations where they may have had an immunocompromised partner, parent, or child, and that staff might be frightened that they may bring home something that would hurt their family members. On the other side, we were trying to advocate on the behalf of our students and what they need in order to be successful, so the challenge of balancing those kinds of things was something that I thought about a lot.
So you find that dealing with issues with staff throughout the pandemic was kind of hard to deal with?
Yes. It is because in student housing, the people that we worked with, our staff team, have been with us for a very long time. You know them at a greater personal level than you may know other people outside of your department, so there’s that emotional connection that you have with people. I personally don’t want to see anybody hurt or feeling pain or stressed about different things, so when you see this degree of stress because of the uncertainty of the world, then that’s not what we espouse to do in making sure that their work environment is a positive environment and that we care for one another. It’s the same thing with our students as well. They come and live with us for a very short period of time, relatively speaking, but we pride ourselves in the environments we create, the communities we build, and the success that our students can achieve.
That kind of ties back in with morale. It’s kind of hard to keep that up.
The other part I’ll mention as well is sometimes there was a sense of frustration for the staff. For the majority of students in residence, they lived within the boundaries that we built for them, but there were a very small group that pushed those boundaries. They would end up partying. They would have gatherings within townhouses, and at one point in time, that resulted in a COVID outbreak on campus. Staff were actually quite angry about that because they felt that it really compromised them, created risk, and made them really vulnerable in the jobs that they do because they interact with these students. There was some degree of animosity toward some of the students there, and it was built out of fear. That’s unfortunate because I know the staff to be very warm and genuine and wanting to be supportive of students, but here you are in a climate of uncertainty, perhaps of fear, that then changes the outlook for some individuals, so that was kind of hard to see too.
Yeah, that can definitely have an effect on people. Would you say that there were a lot of issues with students in residence or students in general that were not complying with COVID restrictions?
It was an issue we dealt with, and it consumed a lot of time, but it was caused by a small number of students. By far, the majority of students were very respectful of what we needed to have here on campus, but it was a small number of students that engaged in the partying or engaged in large gatherings and stuff like that. The reality is when they were gathering outside, and we were telling them we didn’t want them in large groups and stuff like that, they were respecting us by not gathering indoors. You may recall that one of the things people said is if you want to meet with other people, go outside because the outdoors is a less risky environment than being inside with recirculated air and stuff like that. They did what was told of them, to go outside, but unfortunately, we ended up with large groups of people hanging out on campus together. For that, we needed to take in the context that they were restless, and it had already been two years of COVID, and they wanted to end it. They wanted to make sure that they could have a positive social experience on campus because they missed so much of it in high school. The year before that, when we were having the issues of partying, again, it was a small group of people that were partying together and not being respectful if they were not well or showing up and being together but realizing a day or two later that that they were ill, and not passing the information on to other people. That was a very small group of people, but it had a profound impact.
How did you deal with those issues, and what impacts did they have? Do you mean impacts as in the spread of COVID?
Well, there was an outbreak that was declared. We ended up terminating the contract for a number of individuals that were responsible for the parties.
Their residence contracts? They had to go home?
Yes. That was not a very pleasant thing to be doing, but because we needed to be protective of the environment and of staff and everything else, and we had set out the rules of how people could be on residence and what they had to do in order to remain in residence. These people had violated it and put other people at risk, so we ended up terminating contracts with a number of individuals.
After all these negative aspects of COVID, do you feel like there were any positive aspects of pandemic life for you? Do you feel like you learned anything valuable? Would you have done anything differently if you could go back?
Multiple questions there. A positive: our staff were absolutely incredible. I’m not happy with the word “pivot,” but really, that is what they did at the time. They knew how to work in one fashion, and they had to dramatically change and figure out how we are going to accomplish our goals of helping students to be successful within a residence environment and how to continue to do that. In the first year, we had a number of people who wanted to live in residence. We had to restrict it to 900. What we did is we created virtual communities. We knew that these people were missing out of residence, so we elected to group people together into what we call “Gryphons Nest,” and we had a residence assistant assigned to each of them, and they became the community leaders virtually for these individuals. Then when people were able to come back to campus, they actually had some gatherings to meet each other face-to-face. Some of them ended up finding accommodation together off-campus the following year and stuff like that, so I think I was really proud of how our staff were able to change how they operated, but still provide the greatest reach to support students coming in in their first year. I think that was absolutely amazing. Our facilities people were able to recreate our residences in a fashion that allowed us to put people in single rooms across campus to minimize the use of bathrooms and to put protective devices in areas like residence desks so we could continue that kind of a service. That was absolutely fantastic. I think there were some individuals, some office staff, that recognized that we could work from home if we needed to work from home and still provide service directly to our students, so that was a positive as well. What would I change? Good question. I think part of what I would change is make sure we had even more communication with individuals prior to coming to residence so that they truly understood what the residence environment was going to be like over the period of COVID because it was very isolating for a number of students. I think we needed to make sure that people really understood that and really thought about it before they actually came to residence. Perhaps be a bit more restrictive of who actually got to get into residence because I think there were some individuals who misled us about the needs that they had. I think that my team in housing ended up being the default individuals who were responding to a lot of university-related questions that were coming into campus from prospective students or others because we were still here on main campus. We were answering the telephones and stuff like that. I think that a change would be to make sure that others on campus were available to answer the phone and deal with issues and problems so it wasn’t just our team that was responding.
Those are some good thoughts. You mentioned that you learned in COVID that some employees would be able to work from home if they needed to, and that wouldn’t be an issue. Was there anything else that you feel you learned during COVID that you can implement now or have implemented now into post-COVID life?
One of the things we did with COVID was enhance the cleaning of bathrooms and stuff like that, and we had a certain service level that we heightened during COVID. It’s one of those things that I would love if we had the staff resources to keep it up because you can do all you want to clean the bathrooms and make them nice and shiny and stuff like that, but the minute you have a number of people go in and use them, they look like they’ve been used. Being able to have that level of service all the time would be absolutely fantastic, but it’s just not a reality to have. Having virtual connections with people on a regular basis, I think is a really handy thing to do as well. Did you participate in house calls in the fall semester where a caller came and knocked on your door and visited with you in residence?
Yes, I think so.
A faculty member usually or an administrator. It happened, I think, around November.
Yes, I think I did.
We did that virtually over the COVID period. We reached out not only to those students living in residence but to people in the Gryphon’s Nest community as well. I think being able to continue on with those kinds of things is good. It’s another layer of outreach that we can check in with students and find out whether or not they’re comfortable, whether or not they’re struggling, and whether they need some assistance or referral to other individuals. I think that is something that was really valuable, and I think students appreciated. Some people prefer to have face-to-face contact, and other people like that little bit more distant interaction that they had with somebody else. I think having that kind of concept as another way of doing a check-in with students would be worthwhile to continue.
Yes, absolutely. Adding onto that, the virtual conversations and stuff, I think that is another good resource that came out of COVID. The normalization of Microsoft Teams and Zoom and having online meetings which make things a lot more convenient for people. Not just during COVID and having to be separated, but you can meet with anyone from anywhere and wherever, so I think that was a great resource. You mentioned the bathroom cleaning. It was a lot more extensive than it is now, you would say?
Yes. I don’t want to make it sound like our bathroom cleaning is really poor or anything like that, but because early on in the pandemic where it was thought that COVID was spread potentially by droplet touch, where you could touch something and get it or breath it in, there wasn’t much known about it. We went into hyper-cleaning mode, where we had cleaners go in on a regular basis. They had their PPE on, and they would do all the surface cleaning, disinfecting, and everything else, so that was necessary at the time because of the uncertainty of how COVID might be spread. As we learned more, we were able to relax a little bit from there, but it allowed us to stretch our cleaning over a seven-day operation, which we hadn’t had before. It’s something that we strive for to make sure that we had seven-day cleaning because our students live here seven days a week. It was a way for us to enhance the operation and modify it from the extreme we went to, to what is proper maintenance of the facility.
I find that interesting, and honestly, I find it surprising that the cleaning people could do any better of a job than they do right now because, in my residence, the cleaning ladies that come in every day are fantastic, and they keep the bathrooms really clean.
That is lovely to hear, and I hope you share that with the people that do the cleaning.
Yes, absolutely. They do a really great job.
They have a lot of pride in their work.
Last question. Looking back, how did the pandemic change your life and/or career?
I think it made me appreciate the work that we do even more than I did before. I love coming into work every single day and interacting with people. I’ve been on campus for forty years, and I think I thrive in an environment that’s full of young people and being able to come in and see the enthusiasm and the excitement. Maybe it is living vicariously through the experiences that they have, but I like feeling the energy on campus when students are here. I really saw the opposite of that when we were in the throes of the pandemic and people were working largely remotely and stuff like that. Where you come to campus, and I walk between buildings trying to find who had coffee because there were very limited things that were open on campus at various points of it, and it just felt empty. We have a bunch of beautiful buildings here on campus, but they’re meaningless without the people. I think it was the appreciation of the people and the relationships and the energy that I totally missed, and so I learned a lot about myself and what I value and thrive for, and I really looked forward to having people come back. I think it allowed us to take a look at our readiness and being able to deal with major crises like a pandemic and apply some of that learning to everyday life. It allowed us to think about how we might deal with a much smaller crisis and how responsive we may be, and our state of readiness for different things.
After that very different shutdown where the whole dynamic changed, do you feel like campus and this institution are coming out of this stronger and as more of a tight-knit community?
I think we have a lot of healing that still needs to happen. I think there still is a residual impact of people having a reluctance to come back to work. Those that stayed working virtually and stuff like that recognized that they could work virtually and could meet all the demands of their job and support whatever they were doing. They were able to readjust their lives in different ways. They didn’t have to drive a car to campus, so didn’t have to pay parking fees. They didn’t have to worry about childcare in some cases and the expenses that go along that way. After all these years, to be told you have to come back to work, you’re uprooting your life again, so I think there are still individuals that may not be 100% ready or wanting to be back on a day-to-day, on-campus environment. I think that has to be worked on still, and that’s part of a healing process. It was a major trauma for all of us to go through, and some of us were here non-stop, so it’s not as much of an issue, and others were the last to come back, so there’s work to be done in that area. People need to feel comfortable to be gathering in crowds still. There are still some people who don’t want to be in large lecture theatres. There are still some people who are understandably concerned because the pandemic has not been declared over. When you interact with large groups of people who may be strangers to you, it may still cause you to worry, so it will be a little while, I think, before we return to the pre-COVID days.
Do you find it difficult to accommodate to those people that still have those fears about being in a lecture theatre or about being in residence? With all the restrictions being dropped now, is it hard to make those people happy and feel safe?
With respect to residence, we’re back to normal in the residence environment. Well, higher than normal. We’ve got over 5,000 people living in residence with us this year, so I think from that standpoint, we’re okay. I think there are still probably some individual students who feel nervous about that. With respect to staff that interact in the environment, there are some staff still that maintain the PPE so that they can feel personally comfortable, and we’re quite supportive of that as well. There are some students I think that would prefer to have virtual classes. One of the things that came out of the pandemic that we’re still very supportive of is if you’re sick, stay home and not having to have a doctor’s note, so there shouldn’t be that worry that you have to come to class and stuff. We’re still trying to work through ways to make people feel comfortable about staying home, so if there was access to PowerPoints that they may get from faculty or teaching assistants, then that is helpful for them as well.
Sometimes it is difficult to miss out on lectures if you’re sick because you don’t always have everything available to you on the Course Link, and I guess it is hard for some professors to accommodate to that by recording their lectures and stuff, which isn’t always easy. Well, that is all my questions, so thank you very much for answering them. You gave some great answers. Thank you for your time.
Thank you very much for asking.