"They gave me a bag of chips for dinner": One Michigan student's quarantine experience
Cate Sullivan wasn’t expecting the Ritz - this was student housing, after all. And the on-campus apartment the University of Michigan sophomore was assigned for quarantine “was not like in bad shape or anything. It was certainly livable,” she says. “[But] I’m really lucky I got to leave after [I tested negative.]”
No laundry machines. Potato chips for dinner. Three cold meals, delivered at noon. No microwave. A front door that doesn’t lock (as she learned when a public safety officer abruptly walked in one morning) and soap residue leftover in the shower from whoever was there before. Not a great 24-hour stay, Sullivan says.
As similar descriptions of bare-bones quarantine living conditions have spread swiftly among the student body over social media, it's yet another frustration on a campus that's already roiling in conflict over COVID safety issues and the administration's response. There are simultaneous strikes by the University's Graduate Employee Organization and Resident Advisors, with dining services employees postponing a walkout that was originally scheduled for Friday.
As one TikTok user put it in a post last week that's already garnered more than 51,000 likes and 5,000 shares: "Is anyone else who goes to the University of Michigan just like, 'What the [expletive] is happening right now?'"
Welcome to college, now please quarantine
Quarantine is quickly becoming a part of the COVID-era college experience, with students across the country describing their sometimes bleak living conditions. The University of Michigan, which is offering both in-person and virtual courses this semester, says they have enough housing for as many 500 to 600 students to quarantine, out of thousands who have returned to the campus area.
(Just an hour away in East Lansing, local health officials are asking Michigan State University students to self-quarantine, after at least 342 people affiliated with the school tested positive for COVID. The outbreaks come despite MSU's last-minute decision to move classes predominantly online and ask students to stay home. Health officials say many students came to East Lansing anyways. "At least a third of new cases recently attended parties or social gatherings, and at least one third of those gatherings are associated with a fraternity or sorority," the Ingham County Health Department announced Friday.)
Meanwhile, those who can afford their own off-campus apartments, or a lengthy hotel stay, have more control over their quarantine experience. But those like Sullivan, who lives in a dorm with a roommate and a shared bathroom, are told to go pack their bags for up to 2 weeks in whatever housing stock the school has been able to set aside.
As of Friday, 49 U of M students were in quarantine housing awaiting COVID-19 test results, and another 16 were in isolation after testing positive. That’s just a 10% occupancy rate of the University’s available quarantine housing, according to school data. By Monday, that had dropped to 39 in quarantine and 20 in isolation. (The University provides more COVID-19 data than most public colleges in the state on its online dashboard.)
But unverified complaints about the University’s quarantine housing have been making the rounds on social media in recenty days.
“No microwave to warm food, burnt plastic in the oven, no dishwasher, no dishes, no trash bags or trash can, no washing machine, no tv, and a roach infestation,” a commenter posted in a University of Michigan subreddit this week, attributing it to a friend’s experience.
“I literally just got out of quarantine at northwood [an on-campus apartment complex being used for quarantine housing] and it wasn't pleasant,” another poster said. Another relayed a second-hand story about a student who’d been given “15 minutes” to pack enough clothes for a 2-week stay.
(Michigan Radio has been in contact with the individual who made the first post, as well as students who work in residential housing, but so far no one we’ve talked with directly can attest to a roach problem or being given 15 minutes to pack. The University says it hasn’t received any complaints about insects.)
The school's response and #appeasementmicrowaves
On Friday, University President Mark Schlissel released a public letter addressing the ongoing labor disputes and safety concerns on campus - including quarantine conditions:
"We’re also addressing concerns about the quarantine and isolation housing we’re providing to students. Our commitment to providing meal delivery is continuing, and Student Life staff check in with each student daily. From now on in response to feedback, we will be providing microwaves, and all Michigan Dining meals will come in microwavable packaging."
In response, some students began using #appeasementmicrowaves to express frustration with what they describe as the University's inadequate response to labor and safety concerns more broadly:
Meanwhile, housing administrators say they are doing everything they can to keep quarantined students safe and respond to concerns.
“While we certainly understand that no one looks forward to quarantine or isolation housing, we do our best to make students comfortable during their stay,” Amir Baghdadchi, senior associate director of housing, said in an email Friday.
“Students are provided an apartment with a private bathroom. Students are encouraged to bring any other items that will make them feel more at home. The university provides bed linens, a blanket, pillow, bar soap and shampoo, internet access, trash receptacles, and meal delivery three times a day. Meals are dropped off each day outside the student's apartment doors. Beginning today, we are adding microwaves to each unit. We check on students via phone and email, every single day. These check-ins are coordinated with Housing, Dean of Students, and the University Health Service. There is a facilities team dedicated to serving these apartments. Being under quarantine, students do not have access to the communal laundry room. The person in the post you cited is also correct that we do not provide televisions. Those are not standard across Michigan Housing units.”
Less than an hour later, Baghdadchi said actually, they were working on the laundry thing. "We are also looking into ways of making laundry easier, from requests we have received."
Students, Resident Advisors and GEO step in
By midday Friday, resident advisors had organized a GroupMe thread where quarantined students could make requests, share information, and vent. Soon, advisors were personally dropping off everything from local takeout, produce and menstrual products, room by room. Members of the GEO donated food, and offers to buy everyone pizza for dinner and join a Zoom call with the student government president were coming in.
For Sullivan, a Rochester Hills native studying computer engineering, the week started with her feeling “a little under the weather.” When her temperature rose over 100 degrees fahrenheit, she used an online reporting tool provided by the University to report her symptoms. The University’s health services called later that day to get her in for testing. After ruling out mono and strep, health workers asked if she had somewhere she could stay while she waited for her COVID-19 test results.
Since her East Quad dorm room wouldn't work, staff told her they would arrange for the Department of Public Safety and Services to transport her to the quarantine housing. She went back to her room, packed enough clothes for 2 weeks, and waited. When no one showed up, Sullivan called DPSS, she says, and they seemed unaware she was in need of a ride.
By the time she was dropped off at the apartment, it was after 7 pm, too late for dining services to deliver dinner. “They gave me a bag of potato chips,” Sullivan said. “I brought peanut butter. So I had peanut butter and potato chips.”
The apartment, with its private bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchenette, seemed clean enough for the most part.
“But I noticed that in the shower, where you can put your bar soap, there is still some soap residue from the person before me. Which had me concerned that they didn't clean it thoroughly between people. I was under the impression just from the fact that it's quarantine housing, that they would be like, deep cleaning the whole place.”
The next morning, she realized the lock on her front door didn’t work when a DPSS officer abruptly walked in.
“He saw that I was in there and said sorry and left. So I don't know what they were there for. I don't know if they were looking for open apartments, or if they just thought it was one that they needed to clean out or whatever. But the fact that they didn't know that someone was in my apartment, and they didn't ask or anything, they just went straight in” made her uneasy.
Around noon, three meals were dropped off for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Sullivan says. Without a microwave (this was before they'd been provided) she just ate the food cold. And she had no idea how she’d do laundry.
“So if you have detergent or anything, you could try to do it in the sink,” she says. “But if you didn’t bring it...you’re wearing the same clothes for two weeks.”
Meanwhile, Sullivan’s COVID-19 test results came back: negative. It’s a relief to be able to leave, she says. But going back to her dorm room, and her college life in 2020, felt stressful in its own way.
“It’s been rough,” Sullivan says. “Classes are intense, as usual, and so to have to worry about a pandemic on top of that...I definitely had a worry [about getting COVID-19 in the dorm.] We have a shared bathroom. And I live right across the street from a bunch of fraternities and sororities. And I can see people from my dorm leaving every night and then coming back late in the night. I know that there are people who use my bathroom who party.”
This post was updated Monday, September 14 at 2:00 pm.