Spiking COVID-19 cases and a stay-in-place order: What is it like to be a freshman in the dorms right now?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 - 10:59pm

Freshmen express their concerns about the new stay-in-place order from the University of Michigan and Washtenaw County.

Freshmen express their concerns about the new stay-in-place order from the University of Michigan and Washtenaw County. Buy this photo
Jeremy Weine/Daily

With a spike in COVID-19 cases at the University of Michigan, freshmen living in dorms continue to adjust to college life amid quarantine housing reaching more than 50% capacity and a county-enacted stay-in-place order

Cases have been increasing in almost every residence hall across the University. At Mary Markley Residence Hall, a rise in cases prompted the University to require the entire dorm to be tested, but this didn’t slow the outbreak. Markley is currently on lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus’s spread.

“I think the crazy part was that with the pop-up test in Markley, there was actually a majority of people who didn’t get tested, which is why I think cases are still going up,” said LSA freshman Chloe Jeanmonod, a resident of Markley. “So, now they’re fully making it mandatory and if those people don’t get tested within the next five days, their housing contract will be terminated.”

The lockdown was implemented “due to the high prevalence of cases in Markley and the lack of cooperation from a high proportion of residents who have still not participated in mandatory testing,” according to a notice sent out by the Department of Environment, Health & Safety on Oct. 17. 

Markley students are “expected to follow enhanced social distancing for the next 14 days” and instructed to “only leave your room when necessary to obtain food, use the bathroom or in the case of emergency,” the notice reads. The notice said the measure was taken to protect all Markley residents and prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Two days later, the University implemented a stay-in-place order for all undergraduates in hopes of reversing a sharp increase in cases and to prevent the spread of the virus to the local community. No social gatherings with people outside of an individual’s household are allowed. 

Some students said they feel these enhanced restrictions are not going to make a difference. Engineering freshman Sam Sugarman, who lives in Markley, said he feels there is no practical or realistic way to enforce these guidelines. 

“Why can’t students just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to get food at MoJo,’ and not stay out for the night and come back?” Sugarman said. “There’s just no way to enforce 1,000 kids when there’s like 70 entrances. I don’t think the guidelines are being followed. Everyone’s going over to each other’s rooms.”

Those who violate the stay-in-place restrictions are subject to $500 to $1000 in fines, as implemented by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. Officials said they would emphasize education and prevention before issuing fines.

Sugarman said he feels unsafe living in Markley.

“I know I can control where or when I’m going somewhere and if I wear my mask, but at the same time, I know when people go to the bathrooms, they can’t wear their mask when they shave or brush their teeth,” Sugarman said. “Everyone’s sharing the same bathroom, and no one’s going to wear a mask when they’re showering. It can still be spread in a variety of ways, even with the enhanced guidelines.” 

After a cluster was first confirmed at South Quad, the University said it would implement heightened cleaning procedures.

LSA freshman Eliana Kraut, who lives in South Quad, said she has seen people leaving the dorm to eat at restaurants and visit others’ rooms.  

“I’m witnessing a lot of people still going out and eating or drinking wherever they would like,” Kraut said. “Some people are being a little less cautious about going into other people’s rooms.” 

Many freshmen said that after losing the end of their senior years of high school to the pandemic, they hoped college would be a time to socialize even if it came into conflict with public health guidelines.

LSA freshman Skyler Edinburg lives in West Quad and said she knows that people are going to parties. She said it can be difficult to meet people without sacrificing some precautions.

“It’s hard … you’ll sort of have friends in your room, and I guess you’re not really supposed to do that, but it’s just sort of the only way to socialize,” Edinburg said. “Some people are going out and going out to parties and stuff like that.”

Kraut said an issue for some freshmen is people have differing ideas about what is safe and what is not.

“I know some people in the dorm are really struggling with finding friends who they feel agree with them when it comes to how safe they should be,” Kraut said.

East Quad has had fewer COVID-19 cases than other large dorms. However, some residents said strictly adhering to the guidelines might not be enough as cases have become even more widespread. 

“None of my friends have ever been to any frat parties or anything, so it was really surprising when we tested positive because we didn’t really know how it spread to us,” LSA freshman Rachel Swartz, a resident of East Quad, said. “We were just in our dorm room hanging out with each other. I guess it must have been a random exposure.”

Students also feel that there is more the University could be doing to keep them safe. Both Jeanmonod and Sugarman said they’d like to see more detailed information released regarding positive COVID-19 tests. University administration is currently informing students about exposure to COVID through emailed notices and about new cases through the COVID-19 dashboard.

“I know for sure that the reporting of cases to the students is always vague,” Sugarman said. “They always say the fifth floor or the first floor, instead of your next-door neighbor or down your hall.”

Jeanmonod agreed, saying she’d also like to receive information about positive cases faster. 

“Sometimes, I feel like information is provided to us a little late,” she said. “I know that when we had cases on our floor, we were aware of it just because we had talked amongst us. They didn’t get an email out until a couple days later.”

Kraut said she would like to see the University support students’ mental well-being. Many students have reported a decline in their overall mental health due to the pandemic this semester. 

“I have not seen a lot of measures when it comes to mental health,” Kraut said. “I’ve seen a lot of physical distancing signs and warning guidelines, but I have not seen a lot when it comes to how they’re helping the students. I kind of wish that they put more effort on people’s mental health, because when you’re asking people to stay in one place for two weeks or longer, that’s a big toll on their lives.” 

Students can get tested through University Health Service if they have symptoms or had a close contact with a positive individual. All other students who want to test have to be randomly chosen from a pool of other people who have signed up for the surveillance testing program.

Edinburg said that due to the rise in cases and lack of universal testing, she will be moving home this weekend.

“I definitely think the University could have handled it better,” Edinburg said. “A universal testing program would be much more beneficial. I know a lot of cases where people have COVID and they haven’t even reported it to the University, like they just go to hotels and they don’t go into quarantine housing.” 

Sugarman said after spending spring in quarantine, he was not surprised that this was the outcome of bringing students to campus.

“Take 10,000 high school seniors that have been locked up in their houses for six or seven months and put them together on a campus where they expected to have fun, take away a lot of their outdoor or indoor intramurals and activities and the story writes itself,” Sugarman said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Jared Dougall can be reached at jdougall@umich.edu.

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