Many colleges that intend to reopen their campuses this fall are telling students who will be living and taking classes there to self-isolate for two weeks before arriving.
But compliance could significantly disrupt some students’ lives. The University of Michigan, for instance, is instructing students not to go to work or social gatherings for 14 days.
As the start of the academic year nears, colleges are making rapid decisions to prevent the coronavirus from spreading on campus, including starting classes remotely.
Public health experts recommend a two-week quarantine because coronavirus symptoms tend to appear within that period, which would allow enough time for someone to figure out if they were infected.
Colleges that plan on hosting in-person classes are generally requiring students to quarantine either on campus or in a safe environment elsewhere for two weeks.
Some institutions are offering campus facilities or hotels for students to isolate, which could be costly. However, others say they don’t have the resources to do so.
This came to a head recently with Cornell University, which backpedaled on plans to give every student space on campus to quarantine after New York imposed restrictions on travelers from states with high numbers of coronavirus cases.
Instead, those who are traveling from the hotspots need to find somewhere else to quarantine in New York or another state with a lower number of cases.
The state’s travel limitations similarly affected Hamilton College, also in New York. It also asked students to quarantine somewhere else in the state, or in another state with low case numbers. Hamilton said it would have needed to put more than 350 students arriving from restricted states in immediate quarantine. The college instead is asking those students to fill out a form detailing their travel plans.
Even colleges in states without travel restrictions are grappling with how to best keep the virus from spreading on campus. Michigan has no quarantine limits on visitors from other states. But U of Michigan is stressing its quarantine requirement, describing it as “a 14-day period of enhanced social distance” prior to arriving on campus or the surrounding community.
In addition to not going to work or socializing, the university said students should avoid public transit or ride shares. That could be difficult for students who are supporting themselves or their families.
“For a lot of low-income students, the roles that they play in the summer are as essential workers as well. These are students that are needed by their families and communities,” said Luis Toledo, a student and data and policy analyst at the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which researches institutional responses to the health crisis.
The university made recommendations to students based on advice from public health experts, said spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
“Every member of our community needs to do their part, within their individual limits, to keep the community safe,” he wrote in an email. “We also trust that individual students will make smart decisions that are best for their unique circumstances.”
Toledo noted that the quarantine period means to stem the spread of the virus at some colleges that can’t afford robust testing.
Even the colleges allowing students to quarantine on campus are imposing strict conditions. Syracuse University is offering first-year and transfer students housing, along with a group of people with whom they can quarantine. They can only interact with those students, a situation a school official likened to a “minimum-security prison,” the student newspaper reported.
Most colleges have not shared how they will monitor students in quarantine. However, institutions have limited purview over student behavior, especially off campus.
“A real issue is that these rules and mandates are not necessarily going to be able to be enforced,” Toledo said.
This story has been updated with a comment from the University of Michigan.