2 weeks in isolation for college students
At least 67,000 out-of-state students must quarantine before returning to campuses
Waves of out-of-state college students are flooding into New York to hunker down in dormitories, hotels and apartments for 14 days of mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.
The isolated scholars hail from dozens of states with surging coronavirus cases that authorities deemed a threat to undo New York’s push to sustain low infection rates.
But finding ways to confine at least 67,000 young adults to their rooms has proved difficult, underscoring the complex web of challenges to limiting COVID-19 from spreading on campuses, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of quarantine plans and interviews with students, health experts and university officials.
From struggles to secure hotel rooms for students and keep up with ever-changing travel advisories to concerns about quarantine enforcement and mental well-being, many colleges faced a learning curve in becoming de facto public health agencies.
“The stakes are high because every institution wants to maintain the health and safety of the students, faculty and staff,” said Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
And to compound the pressure, the potential repercussions of any failures reach well beyond campus.
“(Colleges and universities) really are worried about the safety of their entire community, and that’s a heavy burden,” Mistick said.
Meanwhile, the weekly changes to New York’s quarantine list, which currently stands at 31 states and two territories, force colleges and students to regularly revise their return to campus plans that span from quarantine food deliveries to COVID-19 testing.
All the uncertainty has some four-year universities concerned students will take time off or enroll in community colleges to weather the pandemic.
“Colleges are anticipating enrollment declines but, as with nearly everything else about this COVID world, it’s impossible to predict how bad those declines will be,” said Emily Morgese, a spokesperson for the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York.
With the early return of students due to the required quarantine for many, Ithaca businesses have seen a sudden increase in customers. Classes are scheduled to start at Cornell in September.
One NY college's quarantine struggle
Amid the mounting concerns, Cornell recently decided to abandon its original plan to secure hotel rooms for quarantining out-of-state students, igniting a firestorm in its community.
Instead, the Ivy League college on July 30 instructed the group of about 1,300 students to find a way to quarantine themselves off campus, such as finding lodging in a state not on New York’s quarantine list. It would only allow on-campus quarantines based on personal hardship.
In other words, the college left quarantine enforcement up to the honor code.
Then on Aug. 4, two Cornell officials, including Provost Michael Kotlikoff, encouraged all the quarantine-eligible students without a hardship to start the semester taking online classes at home, at least until their state was lifted from the quarantine list.
“It is disheartening to see the distress that the pandemic and uncertainties about the start of the fall semester are having on our community,” the Cornell leaders wrote in the Aug. 4 statement to the college’s newspaper.
Aidan Mahoney, a Cornell student from Somers in Westchester County, said the saga raised new doubts about the chances returning out-of-state students could bring the virus to campus.
“My confidence has been sort of shaken by their announcement to no longer be involved in that (quarantine) process,” said Mahoney, who stayed in Ithaca over the summer in part to limit his coronavirus exposure threats.
Yet Cornell’s plan also included some of the strictest COVID testing requirements nationally for students, who will be tested upon arrival to campus and then once or twice a week, based on risk assessments.
It’s initial testing of 3,028 returning students revealed three positives as of July 31, college data show.
But despite the testing, Mahoney worried about the virus bringing the semester to a screeching halt.
“It only takes one huge non-compliant party to become a super-spreader event and eventually become a campus outbreak, and that sort of threatens the entire reactivation plan,” he said.
Cornell officials declined to comment for this report.
What college COVID quarantines looks like
Overall, quarantine plans vary statewide. Some colleges housed students in dorms nearly around the clock, allowing small quarantined groups to interact. Others secured rooms at local hotels or promoted a self-quarantine option like Cornell.
Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, had 440 students quarantining in hotels rooms within 15 miles of campus.
The cost for the 14-day college-sponsored package is $780, covering a room and three meals per day, including delivery from local restaurants and grocers. College staff are in regular contact with the students as part of the effort, said Ellen Rosen, an RIT spokeswoman.
“We have put in place educational efforts stressing the importance of social distancing, proper hygiene and other methods to stay safe,” she said, adding student-orientation leaders helped quarantined students participate remotely in return-to-campus activities.
Syracuse University directed some of its students to quarantine at local hotels offering discounted rates, including 20 students at Jefferson Clinton Suites, according to Stephenie Pyle, general manager of the hotel.
“We’re not really seeing much of them, and if they come downstairs they’re wearing their masks,” Pyle said, adding some parents joined students in quarantining.
The suites included kitchens and cookware, with a quarantine rate of $80 per night, down from the typical range of $139 to $200.
But health experts have raised concerns about lax enforcement of state-level COVID travel quarantine orders, in general, and warned young people desperate to preserve some semblance of college life pose unique risks.
“The college party culture could wipe out even the most rigid safeguards,” said Dr. Ravina Kullar, an Infectious Diseases Society of America expert.
Syracuse University already placed a group of students on temporary suspension for knowingly violating quarantine orders, college officials said. It declined to provide details of the case, citing federal privacy laws.
“Creating a safe campus environment is all of our responsibility, and Syracuse University will not tolerate any actions — on the part of students, faculty, or staff — that jeopardize the health of our community,” SU spokesperson Sarah Scalese said in a statement.
An unprecedented return to campus
Yet executing student quarantine plans statewide, in many ways, has been complicated by the fact colleges are also moving thousands of other students into dorms.
It is a massive undertaking under normal circumstances and all but overwhelming during a pandemic, which required restricting the number of people helping students to move in and enforcing mask-wearing and social-distancing rules.
“It does make this an incredibly complex maneuver to have it distanced and have everybody feel welcomed,” Mistick said.
Robert Megna, the officer in charge at the State University of New York system, said each college is trying to make accommodations either on campus or nearby for any student that needs to quarantine before classes start.
He estimated there might be about 6,000 to 7,000 students from the states on New York's quarantine list as of last week. But that's out of about 80,000 students who live on SUNY campuses.
“It’s a small fraction of our student population. So, can some of the campuses accommodate that? Yes, they can," Megna said.
At least 60,000 students at private colleges and universities are coming from states on New York’s quarantine list, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, representing about 100 institutions statewide.
One student's story
Andrew Wicklum, an incoming freshman at Nazareth College in Pittsford, spent his two-week quarantine alone at an apartment near Buffalo.
The 18-year-old musical theater major from Augusta, Georgia said he passed many of the 336 hours of isolation reading, video chatting and “watching a ton of movies and TV shows.”
His only time outdoors consisted of walks in a small wooded area near the apartment complex, but learning the dance moves for the college’s musical production of “Chaplin” helped kill time, too, he said.
Yet despite all the distractions, Wicklum said he missed having his sister and parents around at night.
“I’m definitely not taking the degree and severity of being alone for two weeks lightly,” he said on Friday, with just three days left in quarantine.
“But I think I’ve gone out of my way to make sure I’m not feeling lonely, and the school has gone out of its way, too,” he added.
Professors and college staff at the small private college, for instance, regularly connected with Wicklum, including a range of remote learning and socialization activities.
His only contact with a government agency was a 20-minute phone conversation with a Monroe County contact-tracing official at the beginning of the quarantine. Daily notifications and text messages that should have reached Wicklum as part of the program never came, he said.
And while far different than the higher-learning experience Wicklum envisioned before the pandemic, he clung to a simple mantra to make it through quarantine: “I keep telling myself, you’re doing all this to go to college.”