When the email ordering them into quarantine on Tuesday night began pinging phones up and down the 10th floor of Martin, a freshman dorm at the University of Mississippi, some of the women who lived there were just getting into their beds.
They didn’t stay in them for long. Three students on the hall had tested positive for coronavirus. The email said the other residents of those halls would need to be out of their dorms and in quarantine by the next day.
“It was insane. Everyone at the same time, rushing out of their rooms, panicking and screaming,” said an Ole Miss freshman in Martin who spoke under the condition of anonymity because she did not want to publicly criticize the school in the middle of sorority rush.
Although the COVID-19 addendum to the housing contracts they’d signed that summer had included the option for students to quarantine in campus housing, some students interpreted that email as telling them to find their own housing for the next 14 days. “It is important you consult with your family to consider your options for quarantine,” the letter said.
“Lots of girls [were] crying because they had nowhere to go. I was up till 3 a.m. packing my car because I didn’t know when I would have to leave,” the student added.
The impression was reinforced when students got through to student housing the next morning, and they were urged to return home to their families or move off-campus. Remaining in a quarantine site on campus was listed as another option, but conversations with students and faculty suggest that they felt pressured to get out.
“They definitely advised us to go home,” the freshman in Martin told The Daily Beast.
An email sent the next morning, and obtained by The Daily Beast, backed up the students’ interpretation. As the third day of classes got underway on Wednesday, James M. Thomas, an associate professor of sociology, fired off an email to the university’s top officials, including chancellor Glenn Boyce. Thomas said several students told him that campus housing, when they finally got through to the office, had urged them to either move off-campus or return to their families.
It was a daunting prospect at a school where half the student body hails from out of state—and bringing COVID-19 home to older and potentially more vulnerable family members could spell disaster.
“The policy itself is highly problematic as is,” Thomas wrote in his email, noting that letting on-campus residents move off-campus could increase the spread of the virus in Oxford, where the university is located, and across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would appear to agree. Its online guide to higher ed says that “residents identified with COVID-19 or identified as contacts of individuals with COVID-19 should not necessarily be sent to their permanent homes off-campus. Sending sick residents to their permanent homes could be unfeasible, pose logistical challenges, or pose risk of transmission to others either on the way to the home or once there.”
But as coronavirus infections continue to emerge at colleges in the Southeast, those schools that have managed to keep their doors open, like the University of Mississippi, have struggled to provide a second set of quarantine residences for the exposed. In this case, the epidemiological trouble comes in a state where a mask mandate was belatedly introduced in explicit hopes of saving college football at schools like Ole Miss—and critics say outbreaks are threatening not just the campus, but the wider community, including students’ and professors’ relatives.
Some colleges, such as the state university system in New York, have said they will temporarily close campuses if and when the positivity rate reaches 5 percent. In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Ole Miss declined to specify whether it had a similar threshold. While the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard publicly lists new cases, it doesn’t list the total number of tests or an on-campus positivity rate.
And faculty have taken issue with what they see as an overall lack of transparency from Ole Miss on how the school will handle the virus, arguing that students need something to work toward, or they’ll see being sent home as inevitable.
“It can lead to the perspective that I’m going to make the best of the time I’ve got here,” Conor Dowling, an associate professor of political science, argued in an interview.
“And that’s concerning to me as a community member,” he said. “If I’d told the students this week that I was going to evaluate them on 15 metrics, but I’m not going to tell you what earns you an A or what earns you a B, but I’ll tell you when you fail, they’d call me out on not being transparent. And I think that’s what everyone feels right now. We’d like a little transparency.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, the University of Mississippi acknowledged the difficulty of finding quarantine housing and, in an effort to increase on-campus options, said that after consulting with the Mississippi Department of Health, it had shifted its policy this past week. “MSDH agreed to allow students to quarantine in their assigned living spaces with certain restrictions in an effort to maximize our available spaces,” the school said.
But the policy does not appear to be evenly applied. On Friday afternoon, in an email obtained by The Daily Beast, the student housing office sent an email to a student in Crosby Residence Hall, reminding her that she had five hours to get to her off-campus quarantine location. “After five hours,” the email continued, “the assignment to your fall space will lapse and you will no longer have access.” A professor who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions said that student had called her in tears because she’d felt pressured to quarantine off-campus and hadn’t yet figured out where she was going.
In an email to The Daily Beast, the university said its quarantine policy for students was evolving and being managed on a case-by-case basis that depends, in part, on how close a student’s contact with an infected person has been. In the email, it said it plans to post detailed explanations of its quarantine procedures on its COVID-19 website this week.
Although the university declined to specify to The Daily Beast how many on-campus residents had been ordered into quarantine, the college newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, reported that by the end of the first week of class, five halls across campus, holding approximately 300 students, had been quarantined. On Sunday, though, the school’s COVID-19 dashboard—which provides statistics on the disease across campus—listed just 58 students in quarantine on campus. Another 22 with confirmed cases were in isolation. The dashboard does not track students quarantining off-campus.
Since students began returning to campus in mid-August, infections in Lafayette County, where the university is located, have shot up, even as new cases statewide have remained relatively even. Last week, Lafayette County recorded 257 new infections, a more than 150 percent increase over the 92 new cases recorded two weeks earlier, when students returned. Only one other county in Mississippi recorded a higher rate of new infections last week. On Wednesday and Thursday, the county also recorded back-to-back record highs of new infections, with 44 and 46 new cases of COVID-19, respectively, according to the state department of health. Whether that includes any of the 254 students who had tested positive by the end of the first week was unclear: New infections are reported to the local health departments where students permanently reside, so only students who are from Lafayette County would be included in those totals.
“As someone in the community, I’m not thrilled with the policy that they’re being given the option to leave campus,” said Dowling.
Many students appear to be making a last-minute scramble to move off-campus, either to comply with quarantine or before they find themselves fighting a 24-hour deadline.
Amanda Maner works for a company that owns two apartment complexes in Oxford. She said she normally fields 10 or 15 requests for availability a day this time of year. Now, she said, she’s getting three times that number, both from students who have been ordered to quarantine and those who fear their orders are coming.
“Parents are just trying to find anything to get their kids into, no matter what the price,” Maner told The Daily Beast.
In a separate email Wednesday morning to the university administration, Dowling also voiced his concerns over letting students quarantine off-campus. “I think the policy should be reconsidered wholesale,” he wrote.
In response to Thomas’ email, the university had suggested that students were exaggerating the instruction from student housing to leave campus. “I understand that the request to isolate or quarantine is disturbing news to students, and I can imagine that all are interpreting it and processing it differently,” university provost Noel Wilkin wrote to Thomas.
Wilkin also said the university was powerless to tell students where they can and cannot quarantine. “I hope that you will appreciate that we do not have the authority to tell students the location in which they must quarantine or isolate,” he wrote. “They have the freedom to live where they wish.”
But as Thomas pointed out, long before the novel coronavirus emerged, like many colleges nationwide, the University of Mississippi required its freshmen to live on campus.
“Setting aside the whole ethics of the thing, of allowing students to live in the community, they force them to live on campus when there isn’t a pandemic,” Thomas said. “And now that we’ve required them to be on campus when there is a pandemic, we’re telling them, ‘Well, we can’t require you to stay.’ That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”