The freshman class of COVID

Photo of Foothill Unit 4 Dorms
Ethan Epstein/File

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In the midst of an increase of more than 200 COVID-19 cases among students, including two cases of the highly contagious U.K. variant, UC Berkeley has deployed campus police to help enforce the campus’ mandatory self-sequester for freshmen living in campus housing to combat the surge.

Many students condemn the campus response, citing the negative mental health consequences living alone in a residence hall intended for sharing. Others, however, claim that the campus isn’t doing enough, going so far as to allege that the disorganization and isolation protocols implemented by University Health Services, or UHS, inadvertently contributed to the spread.

On Monday, Feb. 1, campus implemented a mandatory self-sequester for all campus residence hall residents, requiring them to remain in their rooms unless they had to use the bathroom and barring them from going outside unless they were facing a medical emergency, complying with COVID-19 testing requirements or picking up food from a dining hall kiosk.

This ban differed from an earlier one implemented at the start of the semester when freshmen returned to campus because it prohibited outdoor exercise. “You may NOT leave your room for solo outdoor exercise,” reads the campus housing webpage. The harsh measures were picked up in a story by The New York Times that ran with the title “Covid Absolutism.”

Alec Cahrystal, a UC Berkeley freshman, said the past week felt as intense as weeks in the month of March did during the height of the first quarantine. “They wanted everyone to stay locked up in their rooms, you couldn’t even see the people on your floor,” he reported. 

Esther Lee, a freshman living in Unit 2 for the first time this semester and current staff at The Daily Californian, said she spent the 10-day sequester period inside and alone. She described the experience as “really isolating.” The combination of anxiety surrounding her health and her classes, coupled with her family’s anxiety about her situation, all intensified by the fact that she had no escape from her room, caused her mental health to deteriorate.

According to Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious disease specialist at University of St Andrews in Scotland, scientists have not documented any instances of outdoor transmission unless people were in close conversation, as originally reported by The New York Times.

UHS medical director Dr. Anna Harte agrees that safe, physically distanced outdoor exercise is essential to physical and mental health. However, she said the number of known contacts living within the residence halls was significant, and it was essential students did not mix more than absolutely necessary while the outbreak was brought under control.

“We have learned from our contact tracing that the virus has been passed between students exercising together in the past, because physical distancing is challenging, and people get closer to talk,” Harte said.

A freshman who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from campus referred to the self-sequester as a “witch hunt,” calling it “inconducive” to already stressed-out students’ happiness and health. 

“Not being allowed to go outside, not being able to exercise, not being around other people takes its toll on immune systems. I wouldn’t be shocked if I’m vitamin D deficient at this point, which leads to developing more severe cases of corona.”

A freshman who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from campus referred to the self-sequester as a “witch hunt,” calling it “inconducive” to already stressed-out students’ happiness and health. 

Two weeks ago, a girl on the anonymous student’s floor invited a member of her bubble into her room to watch the Super Bowl. Both had already tested positive for COVID-19. According to the student, their floor group message exploded, with another student telling the pair they were “terrible people.” 

Campus encouraged students to report witnessed violations of self-sequester protocols to their resident assistants or a residential email account, in the name of protecting “fellow students and our community.”

According to some students, these protocols are not as strictly enforced in the Foothill and Stern housing complexes, which are currently being used to house COVID-19-exposed, COVID-19-symptomatic and COVID-19-positive students. 

Cahrystal and the anonymous student both stayed at Foothill after testing positive for COVID-19 and describe it as a very social and relaxed experience. Lounges were open and, unlike the regular residence halls, students were allowed to walk around and hang out with other people.

“It almost felt like a normal dorm experience,” Cahrystal said.

Almost. The anonymous student’s room lacked a working toilet, and only one of its two showers turned on, albeit without any hot water.

Other students allege that the UHS policy of sending entire housing bubbles to Foothill and Stern after only one member of the assigned social bubble has contracted the coronavirus has left some students unnecessarily exposed. 

Freshman Dominic de Bettencourt spoke of how one of his friends was mistakenly sent to Foothill after someone on his floor tested positive for COVID-19, even though de Bettencourt’s friend had minimal contact with the student and was considered low risk.

The low-risk student received an email to go to Foothill, yet allegedly never received specific instructions on where to go. According to this student, he ended up getting on a bus and quarantining with high-risk students who had all been in close contact with those who had tested positive for COVID-19 “because of UHS’ actions and miscommunication.”

Lee has a similar story. Walking back to Unit 2, she said she found her suitemate, whom she’d only known for a few days, waiting outside, with her bags packed, to take the bus to Foothill. A contact tracer told her she too would be sent, so she packed her bags, but she received no further communication from UHS. According to Lee, she waited in her room for four days.

Cahrystal said he was exposed to COVID-19 from an asymptomatic friend he met for lunch and started self-quarantining after his friend tested positive. According to Cahrystal, he had to wait three days to get an appointment at the Tang Center for symptomatic testing.

According to Cahrystal, his floor found out he was positive before he did due to an email informing them they had to go to Foothill. Cahrystal said he received his results five days later.

According to him, a friend of his had been placed in a suite at Foothill with students who had just been exposed but not yet tested positive. He believes that, had his friend’s test come back quicker, he could have originally gone to the residence hall with positive cases, Stern, but instead, he stayed at Foothill, the residence hall with students who have been exposed to the virus. Cahrystal’s friend thinks that during his time at Foothill, he gave the virus to two other people.

According to official campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, turnaround time can vary between one to three days. It very rarely takes longer than this, and that would only be in a tiny minority of cases, Gilmore said in an email. She added that campus does not have any data that substantiates a concern that quarantine and isolation procedures have resulted in infections.

“The UHS pat themselves on the back for a job well done,” the anonymous student said, “when it hasn’t been and then they scapegoat stupid college kids who don’t listen to the rules.”

And while there has been an increased security presence in residence halls — Lee said she even sees policemen patrol the residence halls at night to try and prevent gatherings from happening — campus has been noticeably absent in one location: Greek life.

“The UHS pat themselves on the back for a job well done,” the anonymous student said, “when it hasn’t been and then they scapegoat stupid college kids who don’t listen to the rules.”

When Lee left her residence hall to get a COVID-19 test, she passed Fraternity Row and said she saw a lot of people hanging out on a balcony — but no police presence. According to her, the spike in cases at the beginning of the semester was due to residence hall gatherings and parties on Frat Row. And while the former has been tightly locked down, the latter seems to be facing limited consequences.

“I just don’t think the university has jurisdiction over Frat Row,” Lee said.

Gilmore pointed out in the email how students agreed to comply with campus residential policies when they executed their housing contracts and that CalGreeks is privately owned and operated. 

Earlier this summer, after an uptick in cases, including 47 infections that stemmed from Greek life gatherings, campus transitioned from its planned hybrid model of instruction to a completely virtual fall semester.

And, following state guidance instructing California universities to implement COVID-19 prevention plans Aug. 7, campus decided to prohibit registered and affiliated student organizations from sponsoring or organizing in-person events, as earlier reported by the Daily Cal.

Gilmore re-emphasized this sentiment, writing in the email that “student organizations that are not affiliated with the campus may be disciplined for failing to comply with the campus directive to not hold in-person gatherings during the pandemic.” 

Cahrystal said he “definitely knows” people who went out to rush in person at the start of the semester. But he believes fraternity parties are being scapegoated and that the spike was a combination of off-campus gatherings and students returning to campus from different places.

Campus contract tracing indicates that the surge in COVID-19 cases, both on and off campus, is largely tied to a number of small gatherings off campus that took place before the self-sequestration was imposed, Harte said. 

The anonymous students compared the campus response akin to the nation of New Zealand in the fall and the United States’ in the spring. As of Feb. 13, campus amended its former policies, announcing it will now allow students to go outdoors to exercise and lifting its self-sequester Tuesday, Feb. 16.

However, the question must be asked: If there is a clear, consistent pattern of unsafe COVID-19 behavior among campus-affiliated groups, what will it take for UC Berkeley to address it rather than clamping down on the kids under its immediate jurisdiction? 

“You can’t blame kids for wanting to talk to other people,” the anonymous student said in reference to life in the residence halls. “As an extroverted person, it hasn’t been easy.”

He is attempting to cancel his housing contract for the rest of the semester. According to him, campus housing is not considering cancellations until March 1 to disincentivize students from leaving and bringing the virus home with them. He said he is allowed to leave but will be charged until the end of the month.

“This is a horrible situation,” he said, “but the university’s response has also made it worse.”

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].