Sept. 17, 2020 -- University of Michigan sophomore Cate Sullivan did not enter quarantine with high expectations. But when she was put in a room with a broken lock, a dirty shower, and had nothing more than potato chips for dinner, she wondered how she would make it 14 days.
Thankfully, Sullivan tested negative for COVID-19. Her time in the university apartment she was assigned didn’t exceed 24 hours. But the computer engineering major is speaking out to help change conditions for students who are quarantined in the future.
I was surprised. I felt going into this year that the University of Michigan generally knows what they're doing,” she says. “Now I’m a little less sure about how they're handling the whole thing in general.”
As universities scramble to accommodate sick and potentially infected students, Sullivan is one of several college students across the country who have complained about quarantine conditions. They say meager meals, unclean quarters, and a general lack of necessities have made isolation feel like a punishment -- adding to an already stigmatizing experience.
The University of Michigan is far from the only college with student complaints about quarantine conditions. Students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa -- which has had more than 2,300 positive cases since mid-August -- have reported quarantined classmates roaming free. Same at the University of Notre Dame, with about 660 cases. Students at multiple schools have spoken out about inadequate accommodations that give students little to no motivation to stay quarantined.
Students at New York University have complained about expired food and downright bizarre meals -- like watermelon chicken salad -- and others have said they went as long as 2 days without receiving any food at all. One University of Georgia student shared a TikTok video showing "what the $2000 meal plan at uga looks like bc of covid”: a soggy burger and a tiny side salad with a handful of greens and a tomato in a zip-close bag. Another shared images of a room with a chair and a mattress covered in what appears to be mold.
Sullivan had similar problems. She says the university delivered all three meals for the day at noon. But with no way to heat the meals, students are left with no choice but to eat them cold. She was also given one roll of toilet paper to last her 2 weeks, which she says is a common complaint among her quarantined peers.
A University of Buffalo student who wishes to remain anonymous had similar complaints. The experience was like being in “solitary confinement,” says the student, who resorted to heating up a cold meal with a hair dryer. The cold meals cost money, too -- $5.25 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $10 for dinner.
The student has submitted recommendations to the office of residential life.
“I suggested they give out pamphlets and brochures, and numbers to hotlines so they’re more prepared for what to expect in quarantine,” the student says. “It’s important the students know this is not a punishment. It feels like a punishment.”
Universities say they hear the complaints loud and clear. The University of Michigan is adding microwaves to each apartment, according to a statement. There will also be more meal delivery times, and the food will come in microwaveable packaging. The University of Buffalo has included an outside grocery delivery service as an alternative to campus dining services, and quarantined students struggling with mental health issues will have access to counseling.
“In response to their concerns and based on additional feedback from students, the university continues to make improvements to the services and accommodations within the quarantine space to ensure our students get the care and attention they need,” says a statement from University of Buffalo.
Even in the best of conditions, quarantine can be emotionally taxing, especially for people already battling anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Mercedes Ruiz, a sophomore double major in arts administration and theater at Elon University in North Carolina, entered quarantine after a friend tested positive for COVID-19. She has busied herself with YouTube and FaceTime, and she’s even started writing a play -- but the isolation is getting to her.
“I feel anxious because it’s like I’m a threat to society,” she says. “I already struggle with mental health, and this has definitely made it worse in terms of loneliness, but also in terms of motivation. I feel like I have nothing to look forward to.”
If administrators want students to follow quarantine rules, they are obligated to provide them the resources they need to get them through their stay, says Timothy Brewer, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Medicine.
In addition, schools should check in on students daily to assess not only their physical health, but also their mental health, he says.
But the challenge is that colleges are not designed to manage this type of public health crisis, says Brewer, who has been consulting for a few universities on how to ease risk.
“They don’t necessarily have the public health expertise necessary for this,” he says. “The way most housing is designed is multi-person, and the challenge with monitoring is they don't really have the staff to do that.”
Rather than policing the students, Brewer says, universities should be keeping in close contact to make sure they have what they need.
It is also crucial that schools develop a strict cleaning plan, says Neysa Ernst, nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. While the lodging doesn’t need to be a sterile hospital environment, she says, environmental care teams should be trained to understand the importance of wiping down high-touch surfaces.
She recommends students bring their own disinfecting wipes just to be safe. But she stresses it should not be up to the students to create a clean and safe environment.
“It wouldn’t hurt for students to come prepared,” Ernst says. “But do I think it’s the student’s responsibility? No. The institution has a responsibility.