The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With covid surging, many college students are confined in isolation and quarantine

With a highly transmissible new variant, college officials are scrambling to separate infected or exposed students from others

Low Memorial Library on Columbia University's campus in New York. Colleges are struggling with sudden surges in coronavirus case numbers after a semi-normal semester. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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Oscar Lloyd was eating with some friends in a lounge at his college dorm when he got the email: He had tested positive for the coronavirus, and he had two hours to pack and move into isolation housing for 10 days.

“Everyone went into a frenzy,” the first-year student from Virginia said. He was the second person in his group of friends at Columbia University to test positive. He called his parents and some other friends he had just been with. His roommate called his parents. Several people called to get flights moved up to the following day — it was just days before the end of the semester, and they didn’t want to get stuck on campus in quarantine.

Thousands of college students ended 2021 and will begin 2022 in isolation and quarantine as the omicron variant surges in the United States. For school administrators, the sudden outbreaks sparked logistical scrambles to get students swiftly and safely housed away from others.

Some of the first warning signs that the pandemic had changed, again, were on university campuses: Cases spiked last month and many colleges announced they would hold finals online, extend the winter break, or resume classes virtually. In some cases those decisions were driven by the limitations on housing available to separate infected and potentially exposed students from others on campus — the virus was spreading so rapidly that models predicted broadening waves of exposures.

When federal officials updated guidance on isolation and quarantine last week, announcing that asymptomatic people infected with coronavirus need only isolate for five days, rather than 10, school leaders responded with a mix of relief, concern and uncertainty. Many were seeing mild, moderate or asymptomatic cases — but in unexpectedly large numbers.

Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said university officials at multiple schools had been hoping for revised guidelines. If students have symptoms, they have to stay in isolation, she said. “But if they’re asymptomatic, and they’re all vaccinated — I think the new CDC policy is very reasonable in that regard.”

Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s coronavirus task force, said that colleges are anticipating more specific guidelines targeted for their institutions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to urgent requests from university officials.

She said that many are questioning if they should revise timing for isolation and quarantine, or stick with the 10-day requirement because students live so closely together in dorms and apartments, and the omicron variant appears to be so highly transmissible.

Taylor said she had heard from schools across the country that are still seeing rises in coronavirus cases even over the break, when most students are away. “They’re already inundated with cases,” she said. At one large university, Taylor said, the school’s health director reported a 30 percent positivity rate over the break period. According to Taylor, the health director said they were hiring more contact tracers and feeling completely overwhelmed, as though everyone will be in quarantine when students return.

“ ‘I don’t know how we can handle these numbers,’ ” Taylor said. “This is the sentiment I’m hearing.”

UCLA, Yale, Duke among colleges planning to start January with remote instruction as omicron surges

At many schools, cases jumped alarmingly at the end of the semester. After single digits all fall, Bowie State University reported in mid-December that 121 cases had been identified in two days. Many students went home to isolate, and some moved into off-campus housing the university provided during the break, said Cassandra Robinson, a spokeswoman.

At Cornell University, more than 850 students were in isolation in mid-December, according to a school spokesman. Anuli Ononye, the student assembly president, said before winter break that she and other student government leaders were working with the administration to provide support: They curated a website with games and movies to help students get through the solitary time and planned to give out cookies.

At George Washington University143 residential students were in isolation at its peak in December. Seventy-five of them stayed on campus and the others left to isolate at home during the break.

School officials are working to expand the amount of quarantine and isolation housing they have available for the spring semester, Goldman said.

For some international students during the pandemic spike, travel home is "almost impossible."

For those students confined to dorm rooms rather than traveling and celebrating the break with family and friends, the abrupt change in the pandemic could not have felt more stark.

Lloyd moved into his isolation room, where he found loads of empty water bottles, food left in the mini refrigerator and papers on the desk from the student who had stayed there before him: It looked, he said, as though, “suddenly someone said, ‘You can go,’ and he dropped everything and ran.”

The room had yellow walls, a single window, a bed, a set of drawers, and an empty wardrobe without any hangers.

It reminded him of a prison cell, and of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the narrator, confined to a single room, unravels.

“It’s home,” he added lightly.

Unlike his dorm room, with an open window onto the busy street, fraternity row and all the usual bustle and cacophony of college and New York City life, this was unnaturally quiet.

Every night, for hours, there was a soft cooing noise he couldn’t quite place; owls, maybe?

Sometimes, through the walls, he could hear other people coughing and hacking. He himself felt perfectly healthy, making it seem all the more discordant, as though he were trapped in a plague house.

The university provided lots of good food, but without exercise, he didn’t have much of an appetite. He had to scrap plans to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center with friends, and couldn’t just take a walk through the park, skateboard or work out.

“It’s suddenly gone from doing everything all at once to doing absolutely nothing,” he said. “It’s a sharp shift.”

To his isolation dorm, he brought music, and lots of books. A few days into his isolation — even with the last of his finals — he had polished off a book about meaningless jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber, as well as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and was starting on the novel “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt.

Next up: Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

At his home in Alexandria, his brothers FaceTimed him so he could watch them put up their Christmas tree. The family played a virtual trivia game with him. His parents sent him a mini-tree, with batteries to light it up.

They were surprised by his positive test because the school had been so careful, his mother, Helen Lloyd, said. She was glad he had been responsible and been tested, and was helping tokeep others safe.

But to be alone in a room for days without being allowed outside to exercise or get fresh air, or see friends, she said, “that can be very hard on a lot of kids.”

He was allowed out after midnight on Dec. 27. He told his mom he would walk out at 12:01, and catch the next bus home. “I’m leaving,” he said, “the second I’m allowed to leave.”