Reopening Your Residence Halls During a Pandemic

Student room at Cornish Commons

We are facing unprecedented challenges in 2020 as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While every owner and facility manager should already take pride in the cleanliness and condition of the buildings they own and operate, the need to modify our policies and standard operating procedures in the pandemic environment is challenging us to rethink how we manage our communities. There are a number of resources, webinars and ideas in the market right now about what we should be doing to prepare for opening this fall.  In fact, there is so much information that it can be difficult to sort through it all. Capstone Management Partners has culled through the various resources and identified the key areas we think every campus and student housing community should be focused on this year.  These include: increasing communication, adapting services, supporting staff and adjusting your cleaning procedures. 

Increasing Communication

Prior to students arriving, you must ensure that adequate communication has been provided regarding the move-in process, changes in policy and new expectations for the community living experience. Move-in procedures will need to be adjusted to reduce the number of people coming into the building at any one time, and this can be accomplished through assigned time slots, vehicle check-ins, social distance markers on floors and limiting the number of guests a student can bring.  Communication also includes the installation of proper signage throughout the building to educate students on the symptoms of COVID-19, mitigation strategies to reduce the potential spread of the virus and how to seek medical assistance if a student feels ill.  Signage may also include limitations on how many students can occupy amenity and social spaces at the same time. Taking these measures to overcommunicate will help to ensure students and guests are well informed, and allow you to hold people accountable for not adhering to community expectations.

Adapting Services

If you operate a front desk in your building, it is the primary location where people will seek services and congregate.  Social distancing markers should be placed on the floor, and plexiglass can be installed to create a protective barrier for staff and students.  In addition, hand sanitizing stations should be installed at this location as well as other main entry points and elevator landings in the community.  Consider limiting the number of people who can utilize meeting rooms, lounges and amenities in the facility, and even closing them if you have a positive case within the building.  When responding to work orders inside a student unit, ensure that your maintenance team wear personal protective equipment and disinfect any surfaces they touch. Low priority repair items may even be delayed until break periods when occupancy in the building is at a minimum. These common sense adjustments can help students feel safer, without compromising the level of service.

Supporting Staff

Staff who work in your buildings may be feeling anxious about their own safety and well-being.  You can deliver some reassurance with intentional adjustments in staffing schedules, thoughtful training, policy updates and the provision of protective equipment.  A process should be established for daily health screening and reporting as well as contact tracing and quarantine procedures for positive cases.  Consider adjusting schedules to ensure there are fewer staff on site at the same time which will reduce the potential of your entire team being exposed to someone who tests positive.  Make sure staff know they will continue to be supported if they need to call in sick, and that their employment will not be jeopardized if it is necessary to miss work for quarantine or illness.  Make arrangements with local temp labor agencies to have access to additional staffing resources in the event personnel are out for quarantine or illness. Provide adequate personal protective equipment for all staff and ensure you have at least a 60-day supply on hand.  Taking these steps can help reassure your team that you are doing everything you can to support them.

Adjusting Cleaning Procedures

Obviously, the frequency of cleaning will have to be increased.  Most communities have already implemented this practice and fortunately the process of disinfecting surfaces has not significantly changed.  The key is cleaning all of the surfaces in circulation, common and amenity spaces that people could come into contact with.  This includes doorknobs, light switches, furniture, tables, countertops, sinks, vending machines, etc.  If people are likely to be touching a surface, it needs to be frequently disinfected. In order to cover more area in a shorter period of time, consider utilizing an electrostatic sprayer.  In addition to the public spaces your team can clean daily, also consider providing students with the supplies they need to disinfect within their units after move-in.  We do not recommend having staff enter student units to clean them, but instead encourage students to take responsibility for the routine cleaning and disinfection of surfaces within their spaces to promote a healthy environment.

While it isn’t possible to ensure our communities are completely COVID free this coming year, these common sense strategies can help reduce the risk of transmission for your staff and residents.


Author: Dr. Matthew Brown, President Capstone Management Partners