This is it. The moment you and the rest of the young adult world have anxiously been waiting for: college move-in day.
After being forced to shut down early and participate in America’s nationwide quarantine this past spring, campuses around the country have officially started opening up again.
You stand at the foot of your established residence hall awaiting the arrival of your designated roommates. A couple of minutes later, a familiar-looking car pulls up to the curb, a jam-packed caravan laden down with heavy suitcases and exhausted smiles.
As a masked resident assistant (RA) comes to assist you and your friend with unloading her vehicle, you can’t help but glance at the vibrant community immersing your newly-reopened college campus.
Masks are on, social-distance regulations are up and running and classes are scheduled to start tomorrow. It seems like everything is finally falling into place.
And then it happens.
A case of COVID-19 is reported on campus. And not just any case; the victim in question just so happens to be your new roommate.
The scenario depicted above is more than just a breathless hallucination or an institution’s worst nightmare; for a group of Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA) students, it was a COVID-19 inspired reality.
With the relentless pandemic instilling fear into the hearts of students and faculty, a situation like this deems it absolutely critical for those in charge to know exactly what to do and when to do it.
That being said, ignorance and confusion are luxuries those in positions of power simply cannot afford in these times.
The students who were involved in this scenario wished to remain anonymous. They will be referred to as Ashley, Sam and Susan.
While they’d been informed by campus officials that their roommate would be moved immediately to the “isolation housing” units across campus, it seemed unclear as to what exactly would happen to the rest of them in the days to come.
“I feel like everything has been a major trial-and-error,” Ashley said. “Especially since we’ve been part of the first round of students [who’ve been] put [into] quarantine.”
The three students soon learned that, in accordance with PBA’s COVID-19 policies (identified as “Sailfish Safe”), they were considered to have been in “close contact” with their infected roommate and were required to self-quarantine in their apartment for the next two weeks.
Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, “close contact” refers to “anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.”
Had the three students been socially-distanced in a large area or for a smaller amount of time, the outcome associated with their exposure rate could have been very different.
However, given that “an infected person can unknowingly spread COVID-19” within the 48-hour time frame preceding their diagnosis, PBA’s current COVID-19 conduct deems it critical for any first or second-party contacts to be separated and/or quarantined from the public.
The day following their roommate’s exodus from the residence hall, all three students were required to partake in a campus-authorized COVID-19 test, which was orchestrated right outside their apartment doorway. They were not allowed to travel to the designated campus site to be tested in private.
Despite any prior-knowledge associated with the seemingly simple task of quarantine, the mandated 14-day separation was not nearly as easy for the girls as it may have seemed to outsiders.
Given that all four of them live in a standard, apartment-style residence hall, their only access to laundry facilities is stationed down the hall … located directly outside of their mandated quarantine boundaries.
With little to no information from campus officials as to how they were supposed to carry out simple tasks, such as doing laundry and/or removing trash from the apartment, information on how to properly quarantine on campus became indispensable.
Garbage bags gradually accumulated outside their doorway and personal necessities dwindled away. Quarantine became more than uncomfortable; it was unbearable.
“It has been anxiety-inducing,” Sam said. “We weren’t given any turns for laundry, that was something very vague.”
In addition to communication issues, their quarantine sentence consisted of pre-packaged cafeteria meals and the immediate transition to an entirely online learning platform (via Canvas and Zoom).
As a result, the students’ days in quarantine came to feel more like a prison than a virus-free safe-haven.
“I had not seen the sun for like a week. For me, I love being active outside, so [quarantine] was hard at first,” Ashley said. “There was that sense of feeling trapped.”
In addition to these policies, the students were expected to follow suit with the CDC’s updated definition of “quarantine,” meaning that no one was allowed to enter their room and no one was granted permission to exit.
This command in and of itself caused extensive anxiety and aggravation among the three students, as some of the actions being enforced by PBA officials did not line up with what the trio had been told on several separate occasions.
From the start of their test date, all three girls were mandated by the school’s involved departments to not leave their room under any circumstances for 14 days.
If they needed something brought to their room or had a dire emergency, they were given a list of phone numbers and emails (Health Alert, ResLife, the RA on Duty, etc.) to contact.
While these standards were followed to the best of the students’ abilities, it became increasingly more challenging for them to accomplish the daily necessities and pressures the average college student tends to experience.
“It didn’t feel like ResLife and Health Alert were necessarily linked,” Ashley said. “It felt like I had to discuss the same thing with two different people, and I was getting a range of answers.”
Harmonious with Ashley’s sentiments, Sam said the most challenging aspect of their given situation was a lack of communication between their party and the specific departments involved.
“They said they would give us information for the rest of the stuff,” Sam said. “But a lot of the information came a week later because we were kind of the guinea pigs for this. It was very tough.”
Regardless of the communication issues, they were still expected to follow the rules. More specifically, they were told to stay in their room.
What they were not aware of, however, was that their infected roommate (as well as any student stationed within the walls of isolation) had been approved by the school to exit her apartment at certain times during her isolation period.
According to CDC guidelines, individuals partaking in quarantine/isolation periods and/or are awaiting COVID-19 test results should not leave the confines of their established residence.
Considering that Ashley, Sam and Susan’s results had not yet come back, it made sense for them to continue to monitor their exposure rate from within their college apartment.
However, what didn't make sense was that their isolated roommate, who had officially tested positive, wasn’t required to do the same.
Yet, according to the updates they received from their isolated friend, she was granted permission to leave her room and experience fresh air, so long as she wore her mask and stayed away from people.
Six days later, their roommate was able to move out of isolation housing.
Mere hours after her return, all three students were eager to read their test results, which had come back that afternoon.
Ashley and Sam had tested negative and were overjoyed at the glimpse of normalcy their desired results had brought them. Their joy turned to shock when they realized that Susan's results had come back positive.
She was moved to isolation housing that same evening and wouldn’t be cleared to leave until 10 days after her initial testing date.
Given that they had been quarantining alongside Susan up until that point, Sam and Ashley were placed under the impression that their given quarantine date (originally scheduled to end a little more than a week later) would be starting over from scratch.
With no written verification or updated email alert and feelings of anxiety ever-increasing, Sam and Ashley’s stress levels had nearly peaked.
“At one point I had this massive panic-attack, which is uncommon for me,” Ashley said.
They needed a new solution, and more importantly, they needed clearer answers.
After sending several additional emails and communicating with PBA officials via phone call, the girls were eventually granted a new proposal: ResLife would orchestrate a “quarantine-friendly” schedule for them, which consisted of designated laundry times and outdoor walks.
Although the specific times granted to them (6-7:30 a.m. or 3-4:30 p.m.), were chosen by ResLife to try to alleviate the students’ cabin fever, the end result still posed a conflict.
With both students having to attend classes during these times on certain days, their new schedule made it nearly impossible for them to take their break together, if even at all.
Given that the reason behind on-campus quarantine is to protect other students from possible COVID-19 exposure, ResLife set these times for the safety of the majority of students and was unable to adjust them for quarantined individuals.
Despite these specific times conflicting with their class schedules, the girls were still enormously relieved to know that they’d been granted the opportunity to step outside their stale room and inhale fresh air.
Following their continued communication with ResLife and Health Alert, their relief turned to pure joy as they were informed the departments would abide by their original end date and not extend their quarantine period.
When asked how PBA could improve the experience of students confined to quarantine, Sam believes that successful communication and an open mind are of utmost importance.
“Having the compassion and empathy to listen more on the concerns [of the students] and to follow that up with action, if at all possible,” Sam said.
Although all of these adjustments may seem relatively minor to students who have not experienced campus-quarantine, they made all the difference in the world to Sam and Ashley.
“After all of the questions that my roommates and I asked, I am hoping that the people after us will have a better time when it comes to either isolation or quarantine,” Ashley said.
Written by Brenna Brown