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College life in quarantine

Harry Farley (Col ’24) quarantined at University Gardens Apartments after he was exposed to COVID-19.  Stacey Evans

On the day he was sprung from quarantine, Harry Farley (Col ’24) awoke at 7:15 a.m., stuffed two weeks’ worth of laundry into a bag, slung his backpack over his shoulder and gladly hoofed the mile-plus from University Gardens Apartments back to his room at Shannon House.

The University could have sent a ride, but Farley wanted to stretch his legs and savor his freedom.

“I hadn’t walked anywhere in 10 days,” he says.

The first-year student from Richmond was required to quarantine after a contact tracer informed him that he had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The University’s Isolation/Quarantine Care team gave him a quarantine room assignment and urged him to pack up and go there as soon as possible.

Hundreds of other students quarantined or isolated during the fall semester. More than 1,500 were told to quarantine after contacting Student Health and Wellness’ Exposure Call Center, and nearly 1,200 were told to isolate after testing positive. And then there were those who tested positive after taking tests given outside UVA, and those who quarantined after getting calls from contract tracers.

It was a new reality of college life in 2020. Students were urged to have “go bags” ready and could be uprooted at any moment.

For those living on Grounds, quarantine/isolation was a turnkey experience, served in one of 1,500 University-controlled rooms located in dorms, apartments or hotels, with meals delivered and transportation provided. Just a “fraction” of the rooms were occupied at any given time, according to a report in UVA Today.

Those living off Grounds had to make their own quarantine or isolation arrangements. Support was available to all through the care team.

“We were there to be a resource for the students,” says Mary Elizabeth Luzar (Col ’02, Educ ’09), director of student engagement for the UVA Alumni Association and a care-team member. “It could be anything from: ‘Where is my meal?’ to ‘When can I leave?’ to ‘I’m having a really hard time with mental health.’”

For those on Grounds, quarantining or isolating in a hotel was considered preferable to hunkering down in a dorm or apartment, says Owen Solomon (Engr ’24), a first-year student from Woodbridge.

Solomon and three of his suitemates at Gooch-Dillard quarantined for two weeks at a downtown hotel, Home2 Suites by Hilton, after two other suitemates tested positive. All things considered, the experience was not too bad, he says.

“I kind of got lucky,” Solomon says. “I had a lot of work those two weeks. There’s no excuse not to do it.”

When not studying, Solomon passed the time playing video games or watching the NBA playoffs. Food was plentiful and tastier than dining-hall fare, he says. After he tested negative for COVID, he could go outside for fresh air as long as he stayed on hotel grounds.

Over at University Gardens, Farley faced different challenges. The heating unit in his apartment at the aging complex broke, leaving the temperature inside in the low 60s for a couple of days, he says. 

Farley’s apartment didn’t have a TV. The light in the living room did not work. A microwave oven arrived on his final day, but he didn’t bother to unbox it. 

On his third day of quarantine, Farley walked to the Student Health Center to be tested. Two days later, it came back positive. He’d had minor symptoms—a stuffy nose and a slight headache. 

The next wave of students from his dorm went to hotels, he says.

“It was an interesting experience,” he says. “I was unlucky. I think I had more of a rough go than other people did.”

With University rooms unavailable to them, students off Grounds often had to get creative. Ana Stanisavljev (Com ’21) lives in a house with 10 roommates. When one of them tested positive in September, everyone had to come up with a plan.

The student who tested positive went to a hotel at her own expense. Stanisavljev went home to Northern Virginia, an easier option for her than for roommates from out of state. Others quarantined in their rooms. No one else got COVID, but the experience highlighted the challenge of staying safe while living in close quarters.

“College is not conducive to a quarantine environment, honestly,” Stanisavljev says.

Russell Edwards (Col ’20) agrees with that assessment. Edwards was living in a house with four roommates when a friend informed him of a potential exposure.

“UVA pretty much told me to stay in my room,” he says.

Edwards did, as much as possible. Fortunately, the refrigerator was stocked, and roommates also brought food. They stayed apart for the first few days but weren’t always “100 percent careful,” he says.

“There’s only so many places you can go in the house.”  

Ed Miller is associate editor of Virginia Magazine.