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Universities say they have quarantine housing for hundreds of students if needed

University of Michigan

There were 12 graduate students living in the co-op house this spring, all sharing two-and-a-half bathrooms, when one student’s boyfriend (a doctor in Detroit) tested positive for COVID. That meant everyone in the house could have been exposed to the virus. 

They all needed to self-isolate. But in a house with so many people, the question was: how?  

“It was pretty hard trying to kind of organize any kind of quarantine in the house,” says Steven Mace, one of the residents. “The University [of Michigan] stepped in and gave housing to, I think, four or five of us. So they put us up in Northwood housing, because they had empty units. So they did two weeks of quarantine up there for a bit, and provided food.”

It wasn’t fun, but it worked: while testing wasn’t widely available at that point, no one else appeared to get sick. 

Universities have had some test runs over the last five months with providing quarantine housing to students who live in dorms or even off-campus, who can’t isolate or quarantine in their usual living situation. 

But now, with thousands of students returning to campus at the University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University and others, schools have to drastically scale up their capabilities to swiftly and safely get students out of communal living spaces and into quarantine if needed. They also need a way to get to that housing, and get food for up to two weeks, since grocery shopping or going out isn’t an option. 

“We learned a lot very quickly,” says Sarah Daniels, Associate Dean of Students at Michigan. “And so in the winter term, we really utilized the systems that we could identify quickly, and then have refined that, knowing that we're kind of getting ready to scale up when our students do return [on August 24th.]”

Daniels says they’ve got enough quarantine housing for 500 to 600 students, if needed. The spaces are mostly apartment-style quarters, with single bedrooms and bathrooms, and a small kitchenette. 

“It is a specific residential community on North campus that has been identified, and is available in terms of the appropriate setup for this type of environment,” she says. 

Here’s how the University hopes it will work: once a student tests positive, a contact tracer should reach out and identify whether they’re able to quarantine in their own housing or not. They’ll also identify any close contacts who may have also had sustained exposure and need to isolate as well. 

From there, it’s about logistics. 

“We ask them about their needs as it relates to transportation. So can they get themselves there? Do they have a car? If not, we are partnering with our Division of Public Safety and Security, who can transport a student,” Daniels says. “We also ask students about their food and their meals and their needs. Some students have said, ‘I'm going to bring some groceries from home, and then I can order and just have food delivered.’ And that's great. 

“Or they feel comfortable ordering from a local restaurant for delivery and do a porch drop, which is fine. And if they say they would need to order meals, they order through Michigan dining. And so we have a process by which a student can just submit an order online, and it goes directly to Michigan dining. Michigan dining puts together the meal, and does a porch drop every day for the meals for that day.”

Things will work similarly at Grand Valley State University, says Andy Beachnau, the school’s Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs. Typically, about 6,000 students would live on-campus at GVSU. And that hasn’t dropped too much, despite the pandemic: more than 5,000 students will be moving in, Beachnau says. 

So far, they’ve set aside some 200 apartments for isolation, scattered throughout the regular residence areas.  

“So think about it from a student point of view: if you become ill, you don’t want to leave your building. You want to go down the hall or go to a more private area,” Beachnau says. “And then that really kicks in our student support, meaning that food, dining, cleaning, academic support. If you're in the same building where you reside, we can deliver those kinds of services.” 

Eastern Michigan University has reserved 75 single rooms, taking up three different floors in two separate halls for quarantine housing, says spokesman Geoff Larcom. 

Making sure students stay healthy - and sane - during quarantine means lots of check-ins, Daniels says. 

“When students are in quarantine, in isolation, it can feel isolated, right? That's the point. We're removing a person from the community for good reason. And there's only regular contact with the students who live there...And we certainly don't want students to feel like they're kind of put in a space, and then in two weeks, we'll see them again,” she says. 

“We're going to be contacting them, communicating, asking about their needs, making sure they're connected and are supported while they're there, because we know it's an extremely difficult time for a lot of different reasons. And so we want them to know that they're supported and while they may be physically isolated, they are not alone.” 

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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