From COVID to Staffing Shortages: How ACUI and its Members Continued to Adapt to Change in 2021

Marred by a deadly worldwide pandemic, political upheaval, and swelling racial injustice, there’s no doubt 2020 will go down in history. But that doesn’t mean 2021 wasn’t one for the books. This past year, campuses were forced to pick up the pieces of 2020, its ramifications continuing to reverberate across student unions.

“2021 was an attempt to get back to normal on campuses — maybe before everyone was ready,” said Scarlett Winters, ACUI Online Engagement Specialist. “At the end of 2020, I didn’t even know what metrics to set for evaluating success in 2021, because everything was turned upside down.”

Indeed, 2020 proved so out of the ordinary that the phrases like “new normal” and “unprecedented times” made for tiresome headlines. Still, these phrases remained relevant during the past 12 months, which saw a global vaccine rollout, the emergence of new coronavirus variants worldwide, and pandemic-related impacts on the labor market.

COVID Procedures and Policies

A close look at ACUI’s communities of practice and on-demand educational sessions reveals that these — and other weighty social issues — also played out within the societal microcosms of student organizations.

Early on, many members reported a push from campus administration to return to pre-COVID operations as much and as quickly as possible. “It was very time-consuming for our membership, who were struggling to quickly put things back in order after they had been shut down or repurposed,” Winters said.

Organizations across the country faced unease over a lack of safety standards, and student organizations were no exception. Many colleges and universities were quick to comply with the Biden Administration’s November OSHA guidelines, which require employers with 100 or more workers to mandate vaccination or weekly testing. But mandates for student vaccinations, social distancing, and even mask-wearing varied significantly based on geography.

Global Labor Shortages, Supply Chain Disruptions

The number of job openings hit 11 million on the last day of October 2021, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary. “Openings increased in several industries, with the largest increases in accommodation and food services (+254,000); nondurable goods manufacturing (+45,000); and educational services (+42,000),” the report states.

Campuses, mirroring the global workforce, are also facing a talent crunch. Amid staffing shortages and increased workloads in general, ACUI itself has noticed a considerable drop in member volunteerism. “Everyone has been in triage mode, just trying to do what they had to get done for that day, because there just was no time or energy for anything else,” Scarlett said. “For that reason, we’ve relied a lot more on our on-demand programming at ACUI.”

Winters said some campus dining halls and coffee shops have been forced to reduce hours, temporarily shut down facilities, or deal with long lines when understaffed. Supply chain problems are causing added complexity, limiting the selection of food campuses can access.

This is particularly concerning considering that college students face higher food insecurity rates than the general population. In 2020, 10.5 percent of U.S. households reported food insecurity, compared with an average of 41 percent across college campuses (Nikolaus et al., 2020).

Still, student dining groups are doing what they can to serve their communities while abiding by COVID-19 precautions. In October, for example, volunteers at The Pantry at the University of California – Davis distributed bags of food to students rather than requiring students to pick them up.

An Ongoing Social Justice Movement

The racial reckoning initially spurred by violence toward Black Americans in 2020 continued throughout 2021, with campus conflict and activism on the rise. Across the country, student organizations are pushing for social, academic, and programming resources that can be used to dismantle structural racism on campus.

Furthermore, Biden’s recently-passed Build Back Better Bill is poised to help historically black colleges and universities develop high-tech infrastructure via record-breaking funding. The resources will potentially help these schools compete with universities known for a strong focus on technology and science.

And Much More

While the upheaval of 2021 may pale in comparison to 2020, there remains much to be said about the challenges members and the association faced this year. That’s why ACUI is hard at work on another  special Year in Review print edition of The Bulletin. The issue will take a deep dive into topics like leadership and what leadership models worked or didn’t, a discussion about staying healthy, happy, and successful in the face of so much anxiety, and then a look across the higher education landscape and what changed or was new in order to navigate through the pandemic. Finally, current president Jeremy Schenk and CEO John Taylor will provide an overview of the busy year at ACUI and what the Association’s successes looked like. 


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email ( with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.

    View all posts