Nearly two years ago, the University recorded its first COVID-19 case on campus.
The response was swift: Students received instructions to leave campus as soon as they could. Graduate students learned that libraries would soon close. All faculty and staff, save for “essential personnel,” were told to telecommute and teach classes online.
On Feb. 11, the University announced that 361 students had reported positive COVID-19 test results in the preceding week, a sharp increase from 117 positive cases the week before.
But this surge, students told The Herald, looks far different from last semester in terms of policies surrounding isolating, picking up meals and finding tests.
While some students isolate in hotel rooms or quarantine at home, others have tucked away in residence hall singles or shared suites. In-person classes have continued, though some once-full lecture halls are half-empty as students keep up with class online from isolation. Rapid tests, students told The Herald, have become a valuable commodity as they search for testing kits wherever they can — asking friends for extras or even purchasing their own.
The University is confident in its COVID-19 protocols, according to Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06.
“We really feel that we’re doing well,” Carey previously told The Herald. “There’s nothing that we are recommending to make any changes to.”
Students in isolation reflected on their experiences testing positive as well as navigating academics and day-to-day life while isolating.
“I wish I could have tested earlier”: Finding a test and testing positive
On the weekend of Feb. 5, Allison Chang ’23 felt a sore throat coming on. Then she developed a fever that felt “a lot like COVID,” she said.
But Chang had already used her two University-provided antigen tests, and she could not pick up new ones until Monday, per University guidelines. While she largely stayed away from public places, she did not wear a mask in her shared suite and sped in and out of the Sharpe Refectory for takeout meals.
On Monday, Chang picked up her tests. When she received a positive result, she began to fear for the people she had interacted with over the previous days and reached out to tell them that they were exposed.
“I wish I could have tested earlier,” she added.
“Students often have a desire, if they've heard that a friend was positive, to test right away,” Carey said. “I can understand that. In general, when people have been asking for more tests, we've been providing them access to them.”
Still, Carey added that the University considers two tests a week “sufficient.”
“We definitely want students who are experiencing symptoms to reach out to Health Services to be tested and possibly screened for other respiratory illnesses, if appropriate,” Vanessa Britto MSc’96, associate vice president of campus life and student services, wrote in an email to The Herald.
“If students have been exposed and need a test kit they could pick up a kit at the test pick up site at Alumnae Hall between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday,” Britto wrote. “Alternatively, they could reach out to us at Health Services and we’ll problem solve with them.”
Zoe Redlich ’25 said she emailed Health Services when her roommate tested positive and received extra tests — one of which came back positive a few days later.
Students who did not contact Health Services prior to requesting additional tests at a testing site told The Herald they were unable to procure extra tests.
The same Monday that Chang tested positive, Dani Poloner ’24 said that he felt a scratchy throat. He had yet to pick up his tests for that week — so he instead asked a friend who had recently tested positive for a spare test. It quickly came back positive.
Later that week, when a friend felt symptoms come on but had run out of tests, Poloner offered up one of his spare tests.
Vivian Miller ‘24.5 said she had consistently been testing on Monday and Friday, aiming to “catch anything from the weekend or before going into the weekend” when she’s most “heavily exposed.”
The day that Miller tested positive, she said she noticed a sore throat and runny nose but assumed they were normal “winter allergy symptoms.”
“I had gotten my three vaccine doses, and I was like, ‘Maybe I'm just not going to get it,’” she said.
Then, three of her friends who she had seen in person texted to let her know that they had all tested positive within a few hours of each other. By the time she realized she needed to test, it was 11 p.m., University test distribution sites were closed and she was out of tests.
Miller and a friend who was also exposed to the same group of people that tested positive ordered an Instacart delivery to bring them COVID-19 rapid tests.
“We wanted to make sure that we got a test before midnight so that if we had (COVID-19), we could start the timer on being able to leave quarantine,” Miller said.Within 30 seconds, her antigen test indicated that she was positive, she said.
“I expected it to be a positive result. All the people who I would have been spending time with on campus were already (in isolation),” Miller said. “The social isolation that I think has been the killer for people who've tested positive (is) not an issue (for me). I was feeling okay and was not super worried about getting really sick.”
After Gabby Smith ’23.5’s suitemate tested positive, she said her roommate attempted to pick up extra tests from the University’s testing center. But the staff at the testing center denied the request, leading Smith to purchase testing kits at CVS with the aim of getting reimbursed through her health insurance.
“I was a little bit like, ‘I shouldn’t have to be doing this,’” she said. “I don’t know … if (reimbursement is) going to be a big, cumbersome process.”
Isolating in residence halls, suites and hotel rooms
Out of six students who had tested positive interviewed by The Herald, none reported symptoms more severe than a fever — with most reporting a cough or scratchy throat.
“It’s just annoying,” Redlich said. “Universally, (COVID-19 is) clearly not endemic, but in my personal experience, it’s taken the form of what a cold would be.”
After testing positive, the University requires students to fill out a form on the Health Services portal. On the form, they indicate their housing location, if they live in a single or shared residence hall room and if they are experiencing symptoms.
Later, they receive a call from the University explaining next steps.
Poloner said that his test came back positive around 9 p.m. Monday. He notified the University and received an automated message that he would receive more information during business hours.
On Tuesday morning, he waited for Health Services to reach out. But by 12 p.m., he had heard nothing — and still had not left his residence hall as he waited for instructions. He finally called Health Services himself, learning the isolation protocols on the phone.
Soon after, he said he received another call from Health Services and an email directing him to a website providing isolation resources, as well as a login to a “Temporary Resource Management” system to make “essential requests.”
“The response time can vary depending on any number of variables involved in the process of getting students to isolation housing, including the number of positive case reports we’ve received in a given period of time and how quickly we have been able to move students to where they need to go,” Britto wrote. “Sometimes that process takes longer than expected.”
In semesters prior, Poloner would have been sent to isolation housing — as did every student who resided on campus without exception. But this spring, students who live in single residence hall rooms or single rooms within a suite have the option to stay in their residence.
Poloner is currently living in a single room in Harkness Hall — on a floor where he suspects “quite a few people” have COVID-19.
Aside from worries about potentially spreading the virus while going to the bathroom, Poloner added that he is “totally fine” with the setup. He referred to himself as “sort of a homebody anyway.”
To pick up meals, Poloner and other students in on-campus isolation go to 251 Bowen Street between 4 and 6 p.m., where they can pick up that day’s dinner as well as breakfast and lunch for the next day.
He added that he has ordered from restaurants about once a day — and that Brown’s “soggy sandwich” often goes straight into the trash. “Stock up on food and groceries so that if this happens, you’re not stuck with the food they have,” he recommended.
“If the amount of food that a student receives on a given day is not enough, ordering takeout is fine but an alternative method of drop off should be arranged,” such as GrubHub or DoorDash, Britto wrote. “Picking up takeout from area restaurants while isolating is not acceptable.”
If students need more food while isolating, Brown Dining Services is “very much open to providing additional food which students can order,” Britto added.
For students who cannot isolate in their own rooms, Health Services coordinates with Brown Emergency Medical Services to pick up students from campus and drop them off at designated isolation housing — either in Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle, Minden Hall, 251 Bowen Street or the Courtyard by Marriott Providence Downtown.
Students are assigned to these designated isolation spaces depending on individual and administrative necessities, according to Britto.
A third of the reserved isolation spaces are currently occupied, and the University is “not concerned” about capacity, Carey said.
“I was really impressed by how put-together and cohesive (Brown’s) response was to my positive test,” said Miller, who is also a Residential Peer Leader in Marcy House.
Miller said she requested to be moved into the Marriott despite having a single in an effort to avoid interactions that would otherwise occur with students on her floor.
RPLs, Miller said, were required to participate in multiple COVID-19-related trainings to be able to best support residents in their building.
“We are basically told it is possible that there are people who have tested positive in our buildings and who are using the facilities, but (the University) is not allowed to tell us who they are or whether there are people at any given time who have tested positive for COVID-19 isolating in their singles and potentially using bathrooms or kitchens,” Miller said.
If a student decides to share with their RPL that they tested positive, RPLs must adhere to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guidelines and cannot share that information with any other residents in the building.
“Our guidance was pretty much ‘to be the generalized supportive influence that you are and pass on any questions or concerns to the higher-ups at ResLife,’” she added.
Redlich also found herself in the Marriott after her roommate, who had initially tested positive, tested negative and returned to their Keeney Quadrangle room. Students are given two rapid tests to use while in isolation — one to be used at the end of their fifth day in isolation to determine if they can leave, and, in the event that they still test positive, one to test again on their sixth or seventh day of isolation, according to Britto.
Life at the Marriott has been “completely fine,” Redlich said — save for a lack of microwavable Tupperware to heat up cold food, which is the same food that students in on-campus isolation receive.
But students in shared spaces, such as suites and communal houses, said that their situation is more complicated.
University policies list isolation housing as a “primary option” for students who test positive and share a room with another student, but Smith’s suitemates agreed to all stay in their suite in the event that one of them tested positive, she said. Bearing health concerns in mind, Smith slept on the floor of the room shared by her other two suitemates who tested negative to avoid her positive roommate. All four roommates wore masks while in the suite, she said.
“Wearing a well-fitted and high quality mask at all times when in the company of others is very important,” Britto wrote. “The KN95s that have been distributed to students are well suited for this.”
“Students isolating in place should wear their mask at all times unless brushing their teeth or showering, and socially distance at least 6 feet whenever possible,” Britto added.
Lucas Washburn ’23.5, who lives in North House, tested positive at the same time as his roommate. When he goes to the bathroom, he said he wears a mask except in the shower, and he brushes his teeth in his bedroom.
“It’s hard to be perfect in terms of limiting the spread,” he said.
Chang said she asked her mom, a doctor, for best practices to follow in her Young Orchard suite. With her roommates, she established a shower schedule so that the vent in the bathroom could “do its thing.” An air purifier sat next to the sink, and whenever she left her room, she wore her mask.
Maintaining academics in isolation
While in isolation, students are expected to keep up with coursework and assignments.
Some professors who did not already have a Zoom lecture capture set up at the beginning of the semester “have not been accommodating at all,” Miller said.
“I've had some pretty bad experiences, asking professors to set up a Zoom … or lecture capture … where they often say, ‘well, I didn't set this course up as a hybrid course,’” she added. Miller said she compensates for this by getting notes from classmates.
Washburn noted that some of his classes lack a virtual option entirely — though, as someone who is “pretty good at learning remotely,” he is able to keep up with his work.
Redlich said that most of her classes are accessible, but that her main challenge surrounds balancing “sleep, getting the work done and watching Olympic figure skating” as she recovers.
Poloner noted that some of his professors have been more accommodating than others, though there is one seminar he cannot attend, as it lacks a virtual option.
“It’s going to be different for every person,” Poloner said. “I imagine it’s a lot harder for people who are taking more small classes, or theater, performance (and) language (classes)” which are “very hard to translate online.”
“It’s pretty familiar to what I went through last year,” Chang added, reflecting on previous virtual semesters. “Most of my classes are recorded, so that’s just been easy to catch up on. It’s not as fun as being in person, but it’s not too bad.”
Despite students testing positive or having their lives disrupted by the surge of COVID-19 on campus, none of the students interviewed by The Herald said they strongly disapproved of the University’s new self-isolation and self-reported testing policies, aside from the availability of tests.
“Pretty much everyone I know is testing on their own and reporting their cases,” Washburn said. “I feel like it’s working out … It’s less expensive for the University and less time-intensive for students.”
“Compared to other universities, I feel like Brown has been pretty good about trying to at least do something to combat or address positive cases and provide some kind of support,” Chang added.
Emily Moini ’23, who received a positive PCR test result as soon as she returned to campus, quarantined in her Barbour Hall suite at the beginning of the semester.
“I have confidence in the administration making the right decisions,” Moini said, explaining that she thinks the current policies take into account the decreased illness that boosted students tend to face if they do end up testing positive. “I would be more frustrated if the University was still requiring us to be doing PCR tests twice a week.”
Carey said that the current caseload is “manageable” for the University — especially given that the vast majority of students are experiencing mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Redlich noted that she appreciates being able to go to class in person and has not heard of anyone “gaming the system.” Still, Redlich added that she would be more concerned if she were immunocompromised.
“There was some frustration at the University taking a hands-off, you-figure-it-out (approach),” Smith noted. “But in some ways, we were grateful that we didn’t have to move out.”
Additional reporting by Haley Sandlow.
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.
Gabriella is the Senior Science & Research Editor of The Brown Daily Herald. She is a junior from San Francisco studying neuroscience on the premedical track.