Adjusting Housing and Dining Operations for the Fall: Ideas from Your Peers

Image of a to go food carton

Every campus with plans to re-open in the fall is scrambling to adjust campus housing and dining services – but often, we are moving so fast and feeling so isolated that we lose the opportunity to compare notes and brainstorm solutions with our peers, or to learn from what other institutions are trying. That’s why we brought a couple dozen housing and dining services leaders together for a virtual brainstorm session. Here’s some of what they came up with.

As a student life professional, you are currently planning how housing and dining operations will adjust in the fall under the “new normal” of COVID-19. Assuming your institution will host students on campus beginning in August, you will soon have to implement plans to keep students and staff safe in these shared spaces. Before moving to the implementation phase, have you stopped to discuss your plans with other housing and dining professionals to ensure the very best options are on the table?

On May 20, 2020, leaders in housing and dining from just under two dozen campuses met online to discuss the issues entailed. This virtual workshop was unique in its format and was the first of an ongoing series of Group Collaboration workshops held by Academic Impressions, facilitated by Derek Jackson, Assistant VP for Student Life at Kansas State University, and Claudia Marin Andrade, Dean of Students at SUNY Old Westbury.

The Group Collaboration is a format you don’t usually see in a virtual professional development event; each of our virtual workshops provides an active learning environment where participants can explore ideas, get inspired by what their peers are trying, and get a sense of the wider range of possibilities in confronting a given problem. They leave the session with practical solutions they can take back to their team or task force.

Of the campuses represented in this collaborative brainstorming session, half were urban, two thirds described their student population as “somewhat transient” rather than fully commuter or fully residential, and two thirds reported “high pressure to re-open” the campus in the fall. We’d like to share with you some of the key takeaways from their discussion. We hope you’ll also be interested in our upcoming virtual trainings. The next Group Collaboration of this kind happens Wednesday, May 27—and it’s focused on how to operationalize viral testing and contact tracing for the fall. You can sign up for that one here.

Meanwhile, here are a few excerpts from the May 20 conversation:

Two Housing and Residence Life Challenges

How do you encourage student accountability for safety and social distancing?

Here is what the group came up with:

  1. An addendum to the housing contract that explicitly addresses the realities of COVID-19 to ensure students are aware of the risks and of their responsibilities, as well as making them aware of both campus social distancing guidelines and the logistics of the situation (e.g., shared bathrooms).
  2. Work with student conduct to develop policies and disciplinary procedures (temporary or permanent).
  3. Peer led groups. As one participant emphasized, “Students have to impress upon their peers how important this is. That can’t just come from the top-down. Take the idea to the student government; they have to be the ones to lead this.”
  4. Community outreach to educate the campus community; ad campaign contest, posters, etc. Social norming is going to be key. Posters need to specify (a) guidelines for the hall, (b) guidelines for private living spaces, and (c) what to do if you’re sick.
  5. Positive reinforcement- when students are practicing social distancing and mask wearing, give them a prize or other incentives.
  6. Train RAs on new policies and how to intervene and confront appropriately.
  7. Guest policy modifications as well as leaving the residence halls and returning.

One particular challenge is that in urban locations, students from one campus may mix and mingle on weekends with students from other campuses. Empowering students to educate each other about the risks and personal responsibility will be critical.

How do we adjust community bathrooms to protect students and staff?

Among the solutions proposed:

  • More frequent cleaning by custodial services.
  • Providing disinfectant wipes in each stall and bathroom.
  • Assigning toilet/shower stalls (AM/PM schedule).
  • Reducing occupancy in residence halls that use shared bathrooms.
  • Propping doors to prevent high touch on door surfaces.

This last solution is fraught with additional problems. In some cases, propping a door open could be a fire code violation. One alternative is to use foot hooks—but this may be expensive, and may also disadvantage students in wheelchairs who require a push bar. For some residence halls, it may be more practical to ensure wipes are ready by each door, but there remains the challenge of encouraging students to take the matter seriously.

“What it’s really going to come down to,” one participant noted, “is an enhanced cleaning structure and encouraging students to wipe down their own surfaces before use in the same way that you would prior to using fitness equipment at the recreation center. We also need to remember that some of our students may have immune system issues or be at greater risk, and their needs must be taken into consideration as we assign priority for individual bathroom space.”

One strategy that Northern Arizona University is considering is to provide (non-video) occupancy counters for the residence hall bathrooms. Students would be able to see a readout of how many people are in the shared bathroom.

Other questions addressed with group brainstorms during the workshop included:

  • How do we build engagement during a time of social distancing?
  • How we you handle shared spaces such as kitchens and lounges, where students gather naturally?
  • How will we handle COVID-19 testing when reopening residence halls?

A Dining Services Challenge

What alternatives can we provide to buffet dining, and how will we limit the exposure of our dining services staff and students?

Here were some of the suggestions from your peers:

  • Remove many tables and chairs from communal dining facilities to ensure social distancing.
  • Employ the ”Costco” method—only X number of people allowed through the door at any one time.
  • Limit traffic further by assigning blocks of students to ninety-minute shifts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have shifts continuously through the day.
  • Work with providers to make it possible for students who prefer to prepare their own food in their dorms or who are self-quarantining to secure a week’s supply of food and supplies at one time.
  • Work to lessen the pricing gap between “grab and go” options and the old buffet “all you can eat” approach to campus dining.
  • Work with local grocery stores and restaurants to provide discounts for students.
  • Consider providing food trucks outside the residence halls.
  • Look into an “Uber Eats” approach.

To ensure the safety of dining staff and dining guests during grab and go, our participants suggested:

  • Providing appropriate and plentiful masks, gloves, wipes, and hand sanitizer.
  • Strict social distancing for guests in the queues.
  • Cashless payment—meal plan cards, credit cards, etc.
  • Plexiglass barriers between dining staff and dining guests.
  • Reducing menu options and using prepared ingredients.

The last idea suggests the Panda Express model; early in the pandemic, Panda Express reduced the options in its menu sharply. Fewer options means less passing of platters or containers between food services staff, and it means guests can grab food more quickly, limiting their exposure. Selecting from five options instead of twenty can make a big difference. The use of prepared ingredients (such as pre-sliced vegetables) also limits handling of food and cutlery.

Many of our participants spoke to the need for dining services to work more shifts. Social distancing may require more preparation time. But this may be essential to protecting students.

Other challenges that our participants addressed during the workshop included:

  • How will we manage the flow of people coming in and out of the dining hall?
  • How will we manage the extra trash generated by convenience foods and other “single use” items?
  • How will we meet the needs of students with special dietary needs during this time?

Reopening Campus, Resuming Operations:
Participate in Virtual Events Like This One

Convening online—at a social distance—to address questions like these, and to share advice and strategies, is important. We plan to hold these expert-facilitated Group Collaborations regularly to address an array of issues faced by campuses planning to re-open.


Image Credit: Photo by Jason Weingardt on Unsplash.