AU COVID-19 isolation policy forces students to improvise
Students say issues with University communication led them to rely on friends or RAs for support
After testing positive for the coronavirus, Natalia Martínez-Berríos was constantly anxious about infecting her roommate. She masked up whenever she had to leave her room or came close to her roommate.
Martínez-Berríos, a freshman in the School of International Service who had the coronavirus in January, was required by American University’s coronavirus isolation policy to isolate in her residence hall room or go home. Since going home wasn’t an option for her, she had to stay in her traditional room with her uninfected roommate.
“Whenever [my roommate] would cross the middle of the room and kind of get close to me I would be like, ‘stay away. Don't even try it. Don't even try. I don't want you to catch this,’” Martínez-Berríos said. She added that she was nervous about getting her roommate sick, saying “I was just like really, really stressed that she might catch it …”
She isn’t alone. AU’s coronavirus isolation policy for 2022-2023 left students who live on campus unsure of how to deal with their illness, and roommates unsure of how to keep themselves safe. Some reported issues with AU’s support during isolation and unease at having to leave their rooms while infected with the virus for necessities. In years prior, AU had rented floors of a local hotel to isolate students who tested positive for the coronavirus. Isolation housing was discontinued for the 2022-2023 academic year.
The Eagle requested access to the University’s coronavirus data from the fall semester but was denied access. Beth Deal, assistant vice president of community and internal communications, said AU was no longer providing data in this stage of the pandemic.
The Eagle also requested to interview a member of the coronavirus student support team, the director of housing or the director of residence life but was not granted an interview. In an email to The Eagle, Internal Communications Manager Jasmine Pelaez referred to the Covid Guide for Residential Students for more detailed isolation policies. After The Eagle requested to interview a member of the student support team twice, Pelaez wrote, “Given that we do not have designated COVID isolation rooms, we do not have someone available to speak on this.”
“When a campus community member tests positive, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends isolating in place,” Pelaez wrote. “Our updates reflect these same guidelines and students living on campus must self-isolate immediately in the same manner that anyone living off campus would in their personal residence.”
However, some of the CDC’s recommendations for isolation are not possible for students living in residence halls. For example, the CDC recommends that a person with COVID-19 use a different bathroom and separate themself as much as possible from others. Many dorms have communal bathrooms, and most students living on campus have at least one roommate.
Some students living in traditional-style residence halls with roommates who tested positive had to move rooms or stay with friends, without help from the COVID-19 team. With the support of their resident assistant or the housekeeping staff, these students — both those who tested positive and those whose roommates tested positive — moved to empty rooms on their floors to isolate.
The 2022-2023 Student Code of Conduct states that students are allowed to host overnight guests for up to three consecutive nights. The policy applies to both AU students staying in other residents’ rooms and non-AU guests, according to Pelaez.
Isolation lasts a minimum of five days, meaning that roommates who want to temporarily move out of their room would need someplace to stay for at least four nights. Isolation can last longer than five days when symptoms don’t begin improving by the fifth day, according to the CDC.
Skylar Mest, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences who had COVID-19 in early September, said her roommate stayed with friends throughout their isolation.
“My roommate moved; [he] would live wherever he could that night because he didn't want to catch COVID,” said Mest. “... So he just did whatever he could.”
Other times, students who had the coronavirus were the ones who moved. Matthew Strasser, a sophomore in SIS, isolated in one of the empty rooms on his floor when he had COVID-19 during the first week of classes.
“So even though the policy is like, shelter in your room, I thought that was silly, considering there are so many open rooms,” Strasser said.
Finding food in isolation
For the fall semester, AU’s policy gave students with the coronavirus the option to either pick up meals from Terrace Dining Room or order food from Grubhub. When leaving their rooms to pick up food, students were required to wear masks.
Some students, including Martínez-Berríos, did not feel comfortable leaving their rooms to get their food, so they relied on friends to bring them meals.
“I know I was allowed to go outside to like, get my food delivery but at the same time I didn't want to risk putting anyone in harm's way,” Martínez-Berríos said.
AU worked to address this concern, launching the Get Well Soon Meals program at the start of the spring semester, according to Pelaez. The program allows students to use their meal swipes, meal exchanges and EagleBucks to order Grubhub meals for delivery to their residence halls by members of the AU Kitchen team.
The program is available to any residential students dealing with an illness, and AU Kitchen and HRL are working to share the program with students, according to Pelaez. The Covid Guide for Residential Students has not been updated to include this information and still lists the TDR pickup option from the fall semester. The TDR option has been discontinued, according to Pelaez.
Though Martínez-Berríos had the coronavirus in early January, she was not given the option of the Get Well Soon Meals delivery. Pelaez did not provide a response when asked how much students have used the program during the spring 2023 semester, but said that AU “[looks] forward to continuing this program in the upcoming academic year.”
Anxiety of isolation
Though AU’s initial email to students in isolation lists the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services, the MySSP app and Protocall services as mental health resources, students said they felt continued anxiety throughout their isolation and returning to classes, citing loneliness and falling behind on school work.
“Yeah, it's definitely still a lingering struggle,” Strasser said. “This has been my hardest semester at AU.”
Roommates of students in isolation also noted the lack of support from AU and the stress that came with it. The University may contact roommates and ask them to test if it identifies them as a close contact, but does not provide additional support.
Leah Bordatto, a freshman in the School of Communication whose roommate had the coronavirus in September, said she did not feel supported by the University and added that the start of her roommate’s isolation was one of her worst nights at AU.
“I spent that whole evening just freaking out because I'm not close enough with anyone to like sleep on their floor,” Bordatto said. “Basically, I didn't know who to reach out to or anything.”
When asked about how the University could support these students, Pelaez referred to the COVID-19 Guide and the Covid Guide for Residential Students, which includes both mental health support resources and information for students who test positive and students with COVID-19-positive roommates. Pelaez also said students can reach out to their resident assistants and community directors for additional support.
“We understand that the pandemic has been a challenging time for our entire campus community, including students,” Pelaez wrote. “Throughout the academic year, we have provided information to our community in a variety of ways, including resources for specific supports (meal services, AUProtoCall and counseling center services).”
Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, the AU student support team has contacted students in isolation daily to conduct symptom checks and eventually clear them from isolation. Beginning in May of 2023, the team will no longer proactively reach out to students who test positive, according to a March 7 email from Fanta Aw, former vice president of undergraduate enrollment and campus life, and Sarah Baldassaro, interim vice president of student affairs.
Unlike most other schools in the region, including Georgetown University and George Washington University, AU does not require students to have a negative antigen test on the fifth day of isolation before releasing them from isolation. According to AU’s policy, students are permitted to leave their rooms and attend classes with masks on the sixth day of isolation if their symptoms are improving. AU does not provide masks or tests directly to students in isolation, according to Pelaez. Students can pick up PCR tests from vending machines in Mary Graydon Center and masks from the MGC information desk or Bender Library front desk.
AU will switch from PCR to rapid test distribution after the spring 2023 semester. The University will also discontinue its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for community members.
Martínez-Berríos noted the University’s inability to enforce the minimum five-day isolation and following five-day masking period, saying AU simply relied on an honor system.
“There was like no way of them enforcing it. It was kind of just like a system of trust,” Martínez-Berríos said. “And just trusting that every person follows the masking mandate and everything because also from, like, after you end isolation you're supposed to be able to go out with a mask.”
Moving forward: what AU is doing and what students think would help
While AU isn’t the only school in the D.C. area to require dorm isolations, some other universities in the area like Catholic University and Howard University still offer isolation-specific housing.
After AU removed isolation housing at the start of the fall 2022 semester, it marked a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Pelaez.
“AU invested substantial resources to protect the health and safety of our community,” Pelaez wrote. “We provided isolation housing throughout the pandemic and adjusted once the pandemic moved to a different stage.”
The March 7 email describing changes coming in May also referenced an evolving situation.
“Our approach moving forward is to support community health and safety within the context of the overall public health situation, advance good health choices and behavior by our community members, and recognize that individual response elements will continue to change,” the email said.
Prior to the announcement of the new policies coming in May, students wanted to bring back isolation housing.
Riya Bhalla, a freshman in SPA who relocated to stay in a neighbor’s room while her roommate isolated in early September, said she thought it would’ve been easier for her and her roommate if the University had offered a floor or a room for isolation housing.
“It was just frustrating that AU hadn't done anything to, I guess I don't want to say compensate, but like to ease my anxiety because … they don't have quarantine housing,” she said. “Which I know a lot of other universities have.”
Bordatto also said that having extra isolation housing would be helpful and that there needs to be better communication between the University and students dealing with roommates in isolation.
“... just communication with like both parties to see what can be done because I was freaking out the first day,” Bordatto said. “I had nowhere to turn to.”
This article was edited by Abigail Turner, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.