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Notes from the ether: a failed re-entry into campus life

“Welcome back to hell on Earth!” was a text I got from one of my friends first week Friday, as I checked into Fairfield to isolate before returning to campus. I snickered at the message, not knowing that just five days later, I’d be thrown into the most traumatic botched campus-COVID-protocol situation to be publicly recorded.

Over the past year, I’ve gone out of my way to keep myself and others safe as this pandemic rages on. For me, that meant staying in a small and sterile covid bubble and mostly forfeiting the fun of being a 21-year-old woman. I moved six times over the course of this pandemic to avoid being at the mercy of Carleton’s administration, a body that has instilled in me a deep sense of distrust over the past three years I’ve attended this institution. Just one month into my time at Carleton, I went through a freak experience with a roommate who no longer attends Carleton (for unrelated reasons), and was left to my own devices for an entire week. Even after I advocated for myself, the best Carleton could do was stick me into a triple: two new roommates, when I wasn’t even in the proper mental space for one. This incident, along with hearing accounts from fellow students—especially those who can check BIPOC or FGLI (first generation, low income) boxes—has left me incredibly wary of the power of this institution, or lack thereof when its adversary is not an individual that can be ignored, or inundated with bureaucratic procedure until they wither away into oblivion, but rather a pathogen that becomes increasingly formidable when neglected. But after nine straight months of planning, packing, signing the short term lease, rinse and repeat, I was out of solutions and a sense of home; maybe it was time to go back to campus after all.

Monday was my first COVID test: a PCR to be shipped to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where I grew up. All was well until Wednesday when I took my second test: rapid, came back positive an hour after I took it. I sat in the shock and confusion for a minute: I’m the most careful person I know, and any of my friends can attest to that. The contact tracer called shortly, and after a round of questions, she agreed how weird it was that I could have caught it. She also assured me that someday I’d laugh about the fact that after losing 20 to a self-imposed quarantine (because all our governing bodies and institutions were making an aggressive push to normal), I’d somehow caught COVID the week I stepped out at 21. Not even I have a sense of humor that twisted.

After my concerns about the rapid test being a false positive were shut down, I was instructed to leave the hotel and go into campus isolation. I got permission to spend one more night in the hotel to deal with classes, pack and mentally prep. That same night, my first test from Monday came back negative. I called the isolation coordinator to see if I could get retested due to the conflicting results and differences in type of test administered. She directed me to contact tracing, and to tell them exactly what I told her. Contact tracing assured me I was positive.

Denial, distrust, constant need for an exit plan in every room I’m in at Carleton. At least one of these things compelled me to figure out how to get a third test ASAP: I drove to a Farmington CVS the next morning before getting shut away in the isolation house, “107 College St.”—no one bothered to even name the place. As I locked myself in room 202, I heard the person in 201 struggling. The walls of the house were so thin, and the bare wooden floors created an echo—I could hear every cough, every sniffle, every phone call recount of their time spent at the hospital before they were dumped in 107 College St. to fight this by themselves.

For me, an (assumed) asymptomatic, COVID-positive person who hadn’t seen any sort of communal living space or illness in over a year, it was harrowing to constantly hear of what might become my fate in a couple days. Why were we put right next to each other in that big, empty, echoey house with shoddy cell service and no picture frames to stare at on the walls? To top it off, I had no Wi-Fi in my room. After all this, dealing with internet connection was just not my job. The person on the ITS call noted there was supposed to be a hotspot in the house, but evidently it hadn’t been properly set up, if at all. It was clear nobody was going to come and set it up any time soon.

The problem of an isolation house with a bunch of ailing college students is that nobody on the inside has the energy or interest to abide by COVID protocol (masking up in the hallways or common spaces, wiping down bathrooms and other spaces after use, handwashing, etc.), and nobody on the outside wants to come in to enforce rules or even administer care. I made so many calls and emails asking to be moved to a different room or isolation space, not only because of my deteriorating mental health from having to constantly hear 201, but also because of the lack of Wi-Fi—how was I supposed to get any work done in there when Zoom eats through my data like nothing else? And then when I succumbed to the worst panic attack of my life, my parents started sending emails and making calls for me.

The isolation coordinator suggested I sleep in the room of a person who recently moved out; it hadn’t been cleaned yet, but I could take my bedding and replace theirs—the key was mine for the taking!*

The nurse who contacted me from SHAC asked if I needed anything, and when I expressed concerns about leaving my room because nobody was following protocol in the house, she paused before asking, “But you’re positive, right?”*

Let’s speculate that the second test was indeed accurate, and I was positive at that moment. This suggests that my first test was a false-negative and I had just begun to have a large enough viral load for it to even have registered after that first negative test. I’m no epidemiologist, but intuitively, it seems like a bad idea to introduce even more virus particles while I’m combating the ones that are already making a fool out of my body.

Furthermore, the administration indicated the presence of variant strains on campus. I did a lot of advocating for better conditions before this school year started and variants were even a concern, and that was all based off of hypothetical screw-ups on the part of the college. This was worse than I’d imagined. After all this marketing, I am appalled to have witnessed firsthand the robust isolation strategy they have in place is just dumping all the positives into a shoebox and hoping for the best, even if it means students are swapping strains while in isolation. I’ll give credit where it’s due though: the single mug full of sour straws, popcorn and Cheez-Its on my shelf was a nice touch. 

After being told there was nowhere to move me and nothing to be done about the Wi-Fi, I decided to get myself out of there, regardless of what that illicit pending third test said. I was informed to leave is to break the covenant, as if the covenant wasn’t failing at what it was designed to do at that moment: offer me protection as a member of the Carleton community. There are no real checks and balances in place for those who break the covenant, especially if they’re already in isolation. For the past year, the administration has been banking on individuals to ensure their own safety, and that somehow holds even more true in isolation. To 201 from 107 College St.: I was/am really worried about you. I’m sorry you had to go to the hospital and then to that house. I’m sorry you were burning up at 5:30 a.m. to the point of screaming, and I hope someone helped you open your window or moved you to a room where the windows actually open. Most of all, I hope you’re breathing more deeply and clearly now.

As for me, I’m currently quarantining in Rochester. My fully-vaccinated parents and I agreed that this is better for the sake of my safety and sanity. The third CVS test I took came back negative the day after I left that isolation house. Though I double-masked and went outside of my room only twice in the 24 hours I was in isolation, the way things were handled leaves aching fears in my mind about whether or not my room was aired out, disinfected, safe to be in after whoever did their time before me. I’m praying the exposure wasn’t significant, and I’ll retest in a few days. On one hand, I’m carrying a lot of trauma in my soul, and on the other, I’m glad it was me. Someone more trusting might have actually slept in that unclean room and surely caught COVID, and that would have been a shame. I can’t help but wonder how many students were given advice to their detriment who just haven’t stepped forward or weren’t even aware of the harm they were being led into.

For now, I’m simply trying to make sense of and heal from what the hell it was that just happened to me—something we should all do at some point as this pandemic turns endemic. I’ll try again next year when I’m fully vaccinated and this institution hopefully has its business together. To my friends who stuck by me through this whole ordeal, told me I wasn’t crazy for wanting a retest, or that I wasn’t manufacturing the trauma I felt in that specific isolation situation, filled out that Community Concern Form I asked you to because no one in charge had any actual answers to my own questions, or even offered to drop off groceries at the door: thank you for getting me through this. I’ll see you soon enough. It will have been a while, so my final ask of you is that you give me a campus tour when I do return.

*Most of this type of correspondence was done over the phone rather than email

10 Comments

  1. Joanne Joanne April 19, 2021

    So sorry you had to go through such trauma. May the school have better policies in place and be able to listen to students and take care of student as individuals.

  2. Mel H Mel H April 19, 2021

    Let’s see what I have to write now, not to get censored….

    Stop complaining and be grateful. Your school is trying and is not suited to be a clinic. Accept what life is and get to work. Things are not easy out there and only get harder when your in the “real world”

    • Mel H Mel H April 19, 2021

      Sorry…”you’re”

      Was typing too fast

    • Kayla M. Kayla M. April 19, 2021

      Where do you get off telling someone to “be grateful” for possibly being exposed to covid, a potentially life-threatening disease? I am sorry that the “real world” you live in is such an awful place, but I (a 37-year-old woman) do not and never intend to live in a place where I will be grateful for people putting me in danger, whatever the extenuating circumstances. Carleton is not a clinic, and so if the public health situation exceeds its capabilities, it should NOT have students on campus. I myself just finished an entirely remote year of grad school that would otherwise have been in person because my university did the responsible thing. If Carleton cannot care for students in the midst of this pandemic then it needs to send them home. Otherwise, it is responsible for doing better than the hellscape I just read about.

    • Annette Annette April 19, 2021

      Just so we’re clear: censorship is when you are unable to publish something, due to the content of your message.
      If one publisher declines to publish your comment, but you can go publish it somewhere else, you have not been censored.
      When the rest of us tell you that the comment you just posted is ignorant, cruel, and stupid, you have not been censored. You’ve been called out for being a jackass.
      If your college has not taught you to distinguish between being “censored” and facing consequences for your boneheaded commentary, I suggest you request a full tuition refund.
      (That refund was actually due when you failed to master the distinction between “your” and “you’re.”)

      • Mel H Mel H April 21, 2021

        Just so we are clear, Annette, my previous comment was deleted by the administrators of this page, hence the comment above my second post. So, based on your definition of censorship, I was censored. Calling me cruel, ignorant, and stupid was far less than what I said in my first comment. I’m amused that you are so quick to attack someone who differs in your opinion. You, just like the author, want to be coddled and placated. She didn’t have to come back to campus. She made that decision on her own. She also, could have immediately left when she felt uncomfortable. She decided to stay. She wasn’t locked in her room. She could’ve’ left at any moment. The fact that she was incapable of calling and emailing people on her own speaks volumes to what’s wrong with our youth. I frequent the “Overheard at Carleton” FB page and all I see is complaining about everything. Challenging situations can make us stronger and everyone is so quick to run and cry. Not everything is going to be smooth and easy. That’s the real world I speak of. Telling her to see a trauma therapist after 24 hours in a room with no WiFi because she could hear the person next door to her exemplifies what’s wrong with our world.

    • Warren Situ Warren Situ April 21, 2021

      I’m an alum from the class of 2020 so I had the splendid fortune of an extended spring break followed by a first-hand experience of COVID on campus. I was grateful for being allowed a relatively safe place to finish my studies and have the company of friends and staff.

      Following the class of 2020’s unceremonious exit from campus, I had to adjust to the “real world.” I wholly agree with you in saying that things only get harder beyond campus. But that “reality” doesn’t necessarily absolve the mishaps and mishandling of this particular situation. The students who enroll in Carleton come with a unique trust in the institution–this is actually one of the selling points of a liberal arts education (along with the ‘quirkiness’ thing). This article speaks from the perspective of a minority of people who have felt scorned and mistreated by the institution repeatedly though. There’s no reason to shut down somebody for expressing their insufferable experience just because Carleton is trying or that the “real world” will only get harder in the future.

      For one thing, Carleton has chosen a policy which the writer cautioned against and now she suffers from decisions made by the administration. There ought to be compassion and open-mindedness when reading this. Second, just because the “real world” is difficult, it does not mean that the “real world” is right. Disregarding a piece which speaks for a minority of people suffering by referring to realities outside of campus is precisely the type of stonewalled mentality that prevents us from truly understanding one another. Hey, I understand the “toughen up” attitude too. But this is not the time to bring that attitude up.

      I’d love to console myself in a boarded up room by thinking about how hard the real world is–yeah, that’d help me sleep when I’m worried about being locked up with a deadly contagion. Are people going to start saying, “Pull yourself up by the mask straps” too?

  3. Annette Annette April 19, 2021

    That. Is. Awful.
    Your trauma is completely understandable and you should never have been put in that position.
    I am so, so sorry. If you haven’t already, I hope you will seek out a trauma-informed therapist to help you work through the fear, anxiety, and anger you must be experiencing.
    Thank you for courageously sharing your story.

  4. Riley Riley April 20, 2021

    I want to first start off my comment by saying that I truly appreciate your story and sincerely hope you are feeling well and wealthy. I think you’ve pointed out a number of valid concerns with Carleton’s response to the pandemic and I appreciate your insights.

    However, that being said, I do have a few issues I wanted to note. First, I think it was a completely reasonable response of the school to have you isolated, regardless of how convinced you were it was a false test. This is for a variety of reasons, but epidemiologically it’s very necessary in order to ensure the safety of everyone on campus and not make estimations as to the Covid status of certain individuals based on their previous behavior. Second, I understand how traumatizing and difficult having a positive Covid test is and the resulting stress and anxiety the diagnoses causes. However I don’t appreciate the vilification of the contact tracers and nurses in order to enhance your narrative of the environment. Trying to be light-hearted and humorous goes a long way for many people in order to give them a sense of safety through the whole process. That clearly didn’t work in your case, but I wouldn’t hone that stress on the workers/administration trying to manage the situation. They couldn’t let you in on campus, and they weren’t gonna keep you in housing for quarantine purposes only, so their choice was either isolation or asking you to leave. It’s truly an unfortunate situation and your experience in isolation brings up a number of concerns about how the school is actually dealing with positive cases. That being said, from simply just reading your story, I don’t entirely believe this was on the fault of the school and instead an incredibly unfortunate event that was heightened by existing frustrations with the administration you mentioned you had prior to this experience.

    Thank you for sharing your story and I hope all goes well for you in your following years at college.

  5. Mike K. Mike K. May 6, 2021

    I’m sorry to hear about what you went through and hope that you’re currently feeling better, mentally and physically. While like Riley I believe you point a few valid concerns about procedure, mainly the fact that you should’ve been provided with an additional test, though I understand why you were not – false positives are rare, and that COVID protocols should’ve continued to be followed while you were in quarantine. However, I find myself difficult to sympathize with you on the rest, beyond understanding that you’ve clearly suffered mentally.

    Like another commenter, I also believe that respect needs to be given to the nurses and officials dealing with the COVID response, their trying their best to keep everyone safe, you included, there’s not a lot of them to begin with and they have a lot to deal with. While you didn’t take the joke well, at least acknowledge that she was trying to make you feel better even if it didn’t quite hit. I do however, think that the nurse asking you whether you were positive or not in response to your concerns about COVID protocols to be slightly uncomfortable, however that was also understandable. Epidemiologically speaking once you’re confirmed to have something, being exposed to more of it in a daily lifestyle isn’t particularly a concern, your body is now aware of the virus and is busy fighting it off and goes into overdrive preventing other viruses and bacteria from getting into the body and making it more difficult, additionally there’s very little risk of you getting over the virus and symptomatically catching it again – according to doctors with COVID its a 3-5 month span. I understand that you were likely unaware of this, but at the end of the day, you have to place some trust in the people and institutions taking care of you, which from the rejection of your positive test it seems you failed to do from the beginning.

    As far as the noise goes, I can understand how unsettled you must have been, however, I actually know a handful of people who have themselves been through isolation and lockdown and they also commented on the thin walls and being able to hear everything. But at the end of the day that was all it was to them and it wasn’t particularly noteworthy to them, with that said it sounds like you were prone to elevated anxiety under the given situation, and I’m sorry that you had to go through that, but it you can’t hold it too much against the college for being unable to accommodate your request to be moved, especially considering the risk to those that would be involved and the possible risk to the greater community.

    All that being said I think something should be done about the WI-FI access, considering people are expected to continue coursework in isolation. However, if that needs someone to be within the space itself I can see why they may be holding back considering the possible risk there is to whoever would be doing the fixing, the same thing for the COVID protocols, it seems like the expectation was that students would be abiding by those themselves especially with the risk any maintenance staff may have being in the space, they probably wanted to limit any outside involvement in the space.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, and once again, I hope you’re in a better place – but I do believe the villanization of the college, especially when all of this is especially knew, is wrong.

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