Inside the Slow-Moving Disaster of Students Returning to College Campuses

How does one properly quarantine in a dorm?

Young women in masks carry and push their belongings.
Students move into campus housing Aug. 10 at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

So far, college this year is a disaster. The University of North Carolina has already canceled in-person classes after 130 students tested positive for coronavirus within a week of being back. The school opened even though the local health department had advised them to delay. Students had staged a die-in to protest. When the clusters of cases started, the student paper, the Daily Tar Heel published an editorial titled, “We All Saw This Coming.” The University of Notre Dame has logged more than 300 infections, many of which the university traced to an off-campus gathering in which students were “both outside and inside, together for some time, not wearing masks, in a crowded space, and drinking.” Which is to say: They were at a party. Pretty normal college behavior. Students in the limbo of arriving and quarantining at other schools are waiting to see whether their schools’ coronavirus reopening plans—many of which took the form of weekly testing appointments, mask mandates, and directives not to party—will be enough to keep them safe, or if administrations will change their minds as they watch the reality of campus life unspool at other institutions.

Wellesley College “has been telling us that all of this only works because of our honor code,” says a resident assistant at the school who wished to remain anonymous because of potential consequences at her job. When it comes to her role in facilitating dorm life and keeping students healthy, what she can do is limited: “I can’t control any of these people’s actions—they are fully fledged adults.” When we spoke, she was quarantined in a hotel room that the school paid for, awaiting test results, having arrived from California where cases are high. She was dreaming up ways to help her first-year residents get to know one another safely, like organizing a giant game of socially distant Monopoly with a playing board written out in chalk on pavement. But she was also bracing for uncertainty. “I think I’m always going to have that inherent fear that the school will suddenly change its mind and send us all home,” she said. Returning home, especially if it’s prompted by a high infection rate, would be tricky, as her mom is immunocompromised: “When I left home to come here it was with the understanding that I wouldn’t be able to go home until at least there’s a vaccine.”

Preparing for a potential change, of course, can mean packing light. “I brought four suitcases last year of clothing,” says Marianna Godfrey, a sophomore studying architecture at Georgia Tech who just moved into apartment-style on-campus housing. “I only brought one this year. My drawers are pretty empty. I have boxes, if I need to pack up. My roommate and I have a plan if we need to stay in the dorm all the time.” So far, she’s seen people wearing masks, hanging out outdoors at fraternities and sororities. She’s allowed to head to the architecture studio two days a week to work on projects, where she has a desk that’s 6-feet-wide, making distancing there easy. There are a lot of ways that her health class could go: It might be partially in person, with a yoga component outside, there might be more in-person instruction if things improve, but the teacher also has a plan for if things need to be totally online. “The biggest thing for me that I want you to know is that everyone is trying their best,” she told me. But she’s also concerned about what campus will look like as the semester progresses: “I’m the most worried about that, as people get settled here, students will venture out more, party, gather in large groups.”

It’s a common concern. “We’re just really, really unsure about how this is going to unfold,” said Jason Chang, a doctoral student at Cornell who lives and works as a graduate resident fellow in housing for upperclassmen. A group of resident assistants at Cornell briefly went on strike Wednesday. Their demands included personal protective equipment, hazard pay, a reduced requirement to meet with the students in their resident halls in-person, and clearer communication from campus leaders on how the campus expects to handle the threat of COVID-19; though, they suspended the strike when the university promised more communication. Chang is seeing that confusion play out in the dorm where he works, which is essentially serving as a quarantine facility right now for students coming from states on New York’s restricted travel list who couldn’t pay for a hotel room to quarantine on their own and couldn’t complete the semester virtually.

How to properly quarantine in a dorm is fuzzy. Students are quarantining in single rooms, but bathrooms are shared with other students in a suite or on a floor. “We saw so many people roaming the building. People were trying to do laundry, go into the kitchen,” says Chang of the week so far. “Some people are just trying to get toothpaste. Unfortunately, that’s a violation of quarantine to go out to 7-Eleven and try to get toothpaste.” He spent the evening of move-in in protective gear he purchased himself, putting up additional signage. Another graduate resident fellow, who asked to remain anonymous because her university asked them to not speak to media, said that when she was working on move-in night, some students arrived after hours when the testing center was already closed. Resident fellows had to figure out what to do with untested students on the fly (unlock their doors for them but not give them keys, and try to figure out how to schedule an appointment). “There was a lot of confusion,” the resident fellow said. “There hasn’t been much training on COVID-19.”

Peter Frazier, a professor at Cornell and a data scientist at Uber, helped construct the model on which the school is reopening. “If there’s a violation of the protocol, that does concern me; it doesn’t make me panic,” he said. That’s because the expectation that a student will not do a perfect job is built into the model, though the extent to which modelers and administrators really understand the scope of actual student behavior is unclear. In an interview with the Cornell Daily Sun, he somewhat bafflingly noted that parties in Ithaca, a place that involves a lot of being stuck inside and drinking, should be easy to spot. In a letter to the editor printed in the same paper (but responding to a different piece), a professor questioned the logic of throwing students into an experiment of how well Frazier’s model works. “As many Cornell students are taught, confidence in a model depends on how well predictions of the model have been tested and supported,” Joseph R. Fetcho, a neurobiologist at Cornell, wrote. “The Cornell model has not been tested, but the first test involving all of us is imminent.”

It takes a lot of hubris to keep running the experiment of college reopening not just after students and teacher have raised reasonable concerns, but as other schools start to experience rapid outbreaks. As cases rose on various campuses over the past few weeks, the natural question to ask was what the students who got sick had been doing, to focus the blame for a public health failing on individual behavior. But by attempting a configuration that encourages many students to come back to campus life, it’s the universities that are burdening students, some of whom feel they have to be there to complete the basics of their work and research, or who feel a sense of duty to fulfill their jobs in resident halls. Students stand to take the fall if things go poorly.

Even if things go well, infection-wise, at any particular campus, there will be a psychological toll just in spending this fall hewing to the extreme rules campus life requires or coping with the uncertainty. The hotel where the Wellesley RA is quarantining is v-shaped, and students have been putting up signs in their windows to communicate with one another. On her window is a set of Post-it notes, arranged in the shape of a frowny face.

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