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How isolation ought to be improved, from a guinea pig

My name is Caroline Saksena. I was a guinea pig in the Carleton Isolation Experiment at the start of Fall Term 2020. It was miserable. Here is what can and should be done to make students’ experiences in isolation and quarantine better:

To SHAC and the administrative authorities involved: If something is serious, don’t let that news be a surprise to the student involved. During my isolation, after I’d been reporting for over a week that I couldn’t breathe properly, SHAC called me and suggested I might need to go to the ER. That sent me for a spin and left me wondering if I should’ve gone to the doctor much sooner or taken my health more into my own hands. I lost a bit of trust in the system with regard to how well I was being taken care of.

Figure out how to use Slack. There is no reason why cross-team communication should drag out over days in this age of technology. SHAC, Security, and the DoS office should have a system to rapidly get in touch with decision makers for when a call needs to be made and coordinate responsibilities smoothly. I was told to make a doctor’s appointment and that I could get a ride. On the day of, I found out the department from whom I thought I could get a ride would not give me one because it was not their responsibility. I missed my appointment, wondering: should I have called 911 and footed an ambulance and ER bill to see a doctor sooner and save myself the trouble and stress of Carleton transportation logistics? The next appointment I could make was for five days later. By that point, the communication across offices found some agreement and I was able to get a ride there and a taxi voucher back. Through that time, I couldn’t breathe, and I was seriously distressed. No one can argue that my symptoms weren’t serious.

Along similar lines of transparency, communicate more accurately about housing and bathroom sharing. If people are told they won’t be sharing a bathroom with someone else potentially sick, their upset over sharing bathrooms is completely valid. It shouldn’t require a riot of individual students to point out a clear transparency issue before it gets fixed. If Carleton can’t offer everyone in isolation their own bathrooms, they need to at least say so honestly.

Pay student workers who are forced to miss work shifts. The college should eat that loss, not the students who are responsibly supporting the health of the community by quarantining/isolating. Students rely on work-study as financial aid and a stint in isolation is already stressful enough.

Make it easier to know what resources are available for those in isolation; for instance, printing my readings through disability services saved my eyes. 

I felt guilty requesting apples and yogurt because I knew that Keri, the quarantine/isolation coordinator, was overworked. I was always immensely grateful for her support. At the same time, I felt like I lacked substantial food to eat. Based on my tuition fees and breakdown, I have been promised board (read: sufficient meals), and I shouldn’t be in the position to feel like asking for food I can eat is asking for too much. Food insecurity sucks, and it’s not only difficult to focus on classes when you’re hungry or rationing food, but it’s also difficult to physically heal when you’re not feeling great and don’t have enough protein or veggies. Friends I know who have visited quarantine after me shouldn’t have needed to regularly doordash meals to supplement what they received from the college.

To friends of those whisked away, check in with people you care about who are all alone. Send a daily “how are you doing?” text. Offer to support them even if you don’t know what they might need. They will appreciate it. Make sure though, that you lead with “How are you?” and not “What did your test result say?”. The latter makes you feel so very well cared about. Don’t send the latter at least until after recognizing their emotional headspace. Friends can also leave surprises in Sayles mailboxes to brighten up someone’s day.

To people on campus, there should not be a negative stigma around going into isolation or quarantine. If anything, it takes courage to comply with these guidelines because it means packing up and leaving your dorm home to prioritize caring for the Carleton community over your social needs. We must assume the best intentions and practices and give people the benefit of the doubt that you would hope to receive in your time of need. 

In the course of two weeks, I got at least three negative PCR tests and a negative antibody test. But I also couldn’t breathe in and out for a count of four without wheezing, and I was eternally tired. A lack of diagnosis was almost as debilitating as recognizing how the associated side effects of COVID-19 might apply to my life if I got a positive test. As someone who’s still terrified of contracting COVID-19, I feared the absolute worst of not being able to walk, run and bike normally again.

I didn’t self-report symptoms until the second day I felt abnormal. I was afraid of getting stuck in isolation over nothing and before being able to see my friends for the first time in six months. I reported after a friend shared that they’d been honest on the form and reported symptoms for their allergies, and it wasn’t a big deal. That normalized and destigmatized honest reporting for me in a valuable way.

I was a guinea pig. I did not have fun. Emailing SHAC, my teachers, and supportive resources across campus sucked up my “free” time when I wasn’t sleeping or in class. I burned out last fall in part because I lost so much of my willpower to the duress of starting out my year as an isolation guinea pig. My story here is sugar-coated. By contextualizing my less than ideal situation with recommendations for change, I hope to validate others’ experiences and promote ongoing improvement so that people who quarantine or isolate in the future may fare better than I did. 

P.S. Please give Kari, the quarantine/isolation coordinator, a raise. Even better, please give her a collaborator to spread out her load and lift weight off her shoulders. She was a wonderful support, and I have only praise for her as she did the best she could in the given circumstances.

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