The work itself made her nervous, too. She was called back to clean dorms as students and families arrived on the campus to remove belongings left behind when campus emptied. She was told they’d wear masks. But that wasn’t always the case, Gonzalez said.
“I was worried I’d get infected,” she said in an interview around the time she returned to work. And despite her best attempts to stay safe, Gonzalez contracted the virus and was admitted to a hospital last week, said Stuart Katzenberg, a leader from the College Park chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 3,400 College Park employees, including housekeepers, bus drivers, administrative assistants and other campus staff.
Gonzalez lives in Lanham, Md., with her 18-year-old son and three friends, but she believes she got sick at work. She spends most of her time in College Park, working in close quarters with other housekeepers, she said. State health officials will be notified about positive cases so they can start contact tracing, but Natifia Mullings, a university spokeswoman, did not say whether that process has started.
As campuses announce plans to reopen in the fall, service workers, many of whom are people of color, have been summoned to the front lines. Maintenance workers and custodial crews are being called back to work with little preparation, their union says. And housekeepers like Gonzalez are tasked with washing floors and sanitizing surfaces to keep the community safe even when they don’t feel safe themselves.
“People on campus are very, very concerned,” said Todd Holden, interim president of Gonzalez’s union.
Workers’ fears are compounded by spiking caseloads throughout the country, including on some college campuses. At Louisiana State University, at least a quarter of its football roster — 30 of 115 players — were told to quarantine because of virus-related concerns. New outbreaks in Mississippi have been linked to fraternity rush parties at the University of Mississippi, said Thomas Dobbs, the state’s top health official. Kansas State University shut down its football activities after several players tested positive for the coronavirus.
Maryland Athletics tested 105 student athletes this month and reported zero positive cases, Mullings said. The university invited its football team back to campus this month for voluntary workouts. Athletics officials said they expect there will be positive cases as the school continues to open and are planning accordingly. But promises from university leaders haven’t assuaged workers.
When students came to campus to move out, it was a “low-contact, low-connection-with-others kind of process,” said Patty Perillo, the university’s vice president for student affairs. Students had three weeks to schedule time to move out, and appointment windows were staggered throughout the day to decrease interactions.
Housekeepers were given cleaning equipment and germ-killing disinfectant, Perillo said. And Department of Resident Life staff roamed the hallways to make sure students and families wore face coverings. Signs that reminded people to practice social distancing were plastered on the doors of every residence hall.
“They made it pretty clear that you would have, max, 10 people in the building,” said Lauren Chietto, 19, who moved out of Elkton Hall early this month. The sophomore admitted she didn’t wear a mask while moving because the building was empty.
But the move-out still left workers feeling exposed, especially when they consider the higher risks come fall: 8,900 students are being offered on-campus housing this year. Tens of thousands more students who commute to classes.
Officials at U-Md., like other campuses, say they will find ways to keep people physically distant and encourage students to wear masks. But union leaders worry that the new rules governing campus life — especially social distancing and mask usage — will be difficult to enforce.
Health experts agree. Jean E. Chin, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Georgia, chairs a covid-19 task force for the American College Health Association. She said she expects students to lapse into old habits.
“That really, truly, is the wild card because students are going to be good for a while. And then slowly, gradually, they will just get tired of physically distancing or wearing a mask out in public,” Chin said. “Faculty and staff are anxious about it. They believe that students aren’t going to be able to keep up good public health practices.”
Housekeepers have called on the university to provide coronavirus tests to employees as they return to work. Their union wants the university to implement temperature checks and screening protocols used in Maryland state buildings, including a list of questions about symptoms and interactions with others. Staff also want more supplies: N95 or KN95 masks, goggles, face shields, gowns, booties and extra cleaning agents.
In a letter to the campus community, U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh, who is retiring at the end of the month, said extensive procedures are being put in place to protect housekeeping and residential facilities staff. Faculty, staff and students will be asked to report their temperatures daily, and officials say they want to make testing available to employees who want it. Staff who want more equipment, such as N95 masks or disposable gowns, will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, Perillo said.
“For housekeepers, that’s not necessary,” she said. “But for some of them, there might be a legitimate reason because of fear or uncertainty.”
The anxiety in College Park is heightened by memories of the adenovirus outbreak that exploded on campus in 2018, said Holden, the interim union president. The university faced local and national scrutiny after waiting 18 days to tell students the respiratory virus was present on campus. Olivia Paregol, an 18-year-old freshman with a compromised immune system, died of complications from the virus, and more than 40 students and residence hall staff were sickened.
“Now we’re in covid-19,” Holden said. “The stakes are higher, especially for the College Park campus.”
But the pressure colleges face to return to normalcy are high, too, even before fall. U-Md.’s decision to restart its football program has stoked fears for workers who clean gyms, locker rooms and offices. Reyna Reyes, a 58-year-old housekeeper who cleans facilities for the university’s football and basketball teams, said she doesn’t know what to expect when she returns to work. But she’s fearing the worst.
“I’m worried about getting sick, especially because I lost a close family member,” Reyes said, choking back tears. Her 29-year-old nephew, who had a job installing windows in homes, recently contracted covid-19 and died of complications from the virus, Reyes said.
For Shernette Lyons, who makes $12.50 an hour as a housekeeper, it may just not be worth it. She’s considering other work — specifically, hairdressing.
“We are the front-line staff on the campus. We are the ones who are doing the most work, and we get the lowest pay,” she said. “I’m not coming there for $20 to kill myself.”