COVID-19 on campus: students talk isolation this semester
Illustrated by Chloe Xu
As the Omicron variant led to record-high COVID-19 cases on campus in January, Rice adjusted its own policies, from the format of course delivery to the testing requirement after travel, in response. In anticipation of high case numbers among students due to the high transmissibility of the new coronavirus variant, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman announced late December that Rice may be unable to offer isolation housing to students living on campus. Should Rice run out of isolation space, students who tested positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic would need to isolate in place.
In line with these circumstances, Gorman’s letter to undergraduates in late December announced that Housing and Dining waived the fee for breaking the housing contract in the middle of the school year. According to David McDonald, senior director of Rice H&D, thirty students decided to move off campus for the spring semester. McDonald said that it wasn’t possible to say whether they all moved off for reasons related to COVID-19.
“Some indicated COVID in emails to me, but others were for financial reasons, and most did not give a reason,” McDonald said.
Andrew Cormack, a Martel College sophomore, was one student who tested positive for COVID-19 soon after returning to campus in January. Cormack said that he tested on campus on Wednesday, Jan. 19 and was surprised upon receiving the result late the following day.
“It was really unfortunate,” Cormack said. “I was supposed to go camping, too, and I took that test to see whether I could go on the camping trip. I was not expecting it because I had no symptoms when I got tested,” Cormack said.
Cormack said no one called him immediately after he received the result.
“I … opened [the COVID results] up late Thursday night. I was like, ‘This is not good.’ I thought I’d wait around and wait for someone to tell me what to do,” Cormack said. “All of Thursday night no one told me what to do. By Friday night, someone called me and said I needed to fill out the form.”
Jerusha Kasch, the director of Institutional Crisis Management, said it is common for COVID-19 test results to come in after a day. Before the reporting system changed on Jan. 26, the contact tracing team would follow up with individuals who tested positive and didn’t complete the COVID Report Form within 24 hours, according to Kasch.
“Prior to Jan. 26 the contact tracing team made follow up calls to all positive cases that tested through on-campus testing. Individuals tested on campus received their results immediately through the MyChart system/or encrypted emails, while the contact tracing team receives results in batch files at the end of the testing cycle,” Kasch wrote in an email. “Beginning Jan. 26 … it is the individual’s responsibility to complete the COVID report form.”
Cormack said that he isolated in his suite in Martel. According to Cormack, his suitemates were not extremely shocked by his diagnosis.
“I’m in [a suite at] Martel, so I shared a bathroom and common room,” Cormack said. “[My suitemates] were not phased by it. I don’t think they were quite as concerned.”
According to Cormack, who filled out the reporting form, Rice did not offer him isolation housing.
“I didn’t go out of my way to ask for it. If I had specifically asked for it, they might have since I have suitemates,” Cormack said.
Kasch said that the COVID Report Form, which students are required to fill out, begins the process of evaluating the need for isolation housing. According to Kasch, isolation housing is provided for students with a test result positive for COVID-19 as long as space is available.
“All positive cases that are: one, on-campus resident, [and] two, that are currently within the isolation period are provided isolation housing if there is available space,” Kasch said.
Cormack said his isolation period did not feel very long since he isolated in his room for only the three full days after he received his result. He said his symptoms included a bad cough, nausea, runny nose and sleepiness.
“On Saturday I was really sick … I was not expecting it because I am vaccinated and boosted,” Cormack said. “I am glad I got the booster, though. I feel like [my illness] would have definitely been worse [without it].”
Food was delivered to the suite so that he wouldn’t need to go to the commons, according to Cormack. However, he said that he did not receive food a couple of times and his suitemates brought him food instead.
Diana DeSantiago, operations manager for Will Rice College, Lovett College and Sid Richardson College, said that H&D deliveries are coordinated with the information submitted on the health reporting form through Veoci. Students are able to reach out to H&D in the event a meal is not delivered, according to DeSantiago.
“Students that have not received a meal delivery can communicate through their contact tracer, H&D or college leadership. Students are immediately accommodated if that rare occurrence has been discovered,” DeSantiago said.
Shivani Kulkarni, a sophomore from Lovett College, also had COVID-19 around the start of this semester. According to Kulkarni, she received a positive COVID-19 test result on Jan. 18. Kulkarni said that she isolated in an assigned room at Lovett for five days.
“I got isolation housing after I submitted a health report form and Crisis Management contacted me,” Kulkarni said.
Kulkarni said the location of her assigned room made it easier to move to isolation housing.
“Moving to isolation housing was fairly easy since Crisis Management assigned me to a room in the same college. I thought their communication with me was pretty good as well: they called me and then communicated updates via text,” Kulkarni said.
Kulkarni was asymptomatic throughout the period she spent in isolation housing. She said that both her roommate and suitemates at Lovett were unaffected. However, Kulkarni said that she was concerned about the length of the isolation period.
“I felt a little nervous because five days felt like a really short time,” Kulkarni said. “I was pretty careful with making sure I was always masked around others and limiting contact unless outdoors for about [five] days after getting out of quarantine, which was easy since it was still before indoor dining and in-person classes had begun.”
Tanya Pawawongsak, a Will Rice College freshman, tested positive for COVID-19 upon her return to campus this semester. She said she had also tested positive on a self-test on Jan. 20 and was isolating at her family’s home before traveling to Rice.
“I filled out the COVID report form that Thursday [Jan. 20,] and Rice Crisis Management called me later that afternoon/evening, [and] they told me that since my symptoms started on Tuesday, I’d have to isolate until the end of Sunday, [Jan. 23,]” Pawawongsak wrote in a text. “Since I was returning on Sunday, they’d have an isolation room prepared for one night.”
According to Pawawongsak, she stayed in her isolation room at Old Sid until 10 p.m. on Jan. 24 and took additional precautions after the five days of isolation.
“While I did make sure to isolate until Monday, I also went to class online on Monday out of caution, and then continued to go to class as normal — while double-masked with a surgical mask and KN95,” Pawawongsak said. “I did not interact with anyone outside of classes, though, so perhaps you could say I was still in isolation with the exception of class.”
Pawawongsak said she wishes that professors provided more online options for students who were out sick.
“Many of my discussion-based classes … have almost no options for online learning,” Pawawongsak said. “If I hadn’t had COVID already, I would have been very worried about falling behind if I’d gotten sick.”
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