Over the past nine months, the world has generally reached the consensus that the keys to slowing the spread of COVID-19 include widespread testing, aggressive (and enforced) contact tracing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. At Boston College, however, only two of these criteria—mask-wearing and social distancing—have been met, with testing severely lacking and contact tracing being outsourced to the state of Massachusetts.
But we already know this. So does the city of Newton—earlier this month, the mayor expressed her disappointment over how inefficiently BC seems to be handling the pandemic on campus. Unfortunately, student accounts of their experiences this semester reinforce the mayor’s criticisms. From lax enforcement of contact tracing to disgraceful conditions for students in isolation, each person I interviewed painted a picture of a university woefully out of touch with the needs of its constituents.
From the beginning of the summer, various BC officials and administrators promised extensive contact tracing for students exposed to someone who carried the COVID-19 virus. In practice, however, contact tracing has been spotty—in some cases, students are quickly notified and placed in isolation, but in others, students realize sources of contact through their own means, long after they have been exposed.
Students living in isolation can also see a disconnect between the promises of the university and the reality of their situation. According to the BC website, “Students in University isolation housing will be able to attend classes remotely, will have food provided to them by BC Dining Services, and will be under the care and supervision of University Health Services.” While technically true, this statement is vague in that it fails to reflect the poor living conditions for those placed in isolation.
One student (who requested her name not be published) explained that food in isolation, or lack thereof, was a major issue for her. Each day, she received only a bagel, two hard-boiled eggs, a chicken with two sides, and a fruit cup—not nearly enough food for a college student—and without a microwave, the food was generally brought to her “soggy and gross.” Supplementing this was 24 ounces of water, which is arguably insufficient considering that dehydration can exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19.
What’s more, is that the rooms in isolation housing are not conducive to students taking online classes. The same student explained that the WiFi was not strong enough for consistent connection during online class, and got worse as more people were placed in her hotel. More recently, the Pine Manor dormitories suffered a power outage for almost half a day. Given the pace of classes and the penalties many professors impose for missing lectures, an effective wireless connection should be something BC prioritizes when choosing where to place students in isolation.
Some students also reported not having space to do work, or even a desk in their room, until they asked for one from a BC employee. While BC did eventually provide the students with the resources they needed to succeed in online classes, it is reasonable to expect that these resources be included from the start, without being requested by students.
Besides the poor conditions for physical health and online learning, students in isolation risk impacts on their mental health, too. Not being able to go outside, even by oneself, and a lack of windows in the isolation rooms can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and social isolation that arise from being alone for an extended period of time.
To their credit, BC requires isolated students to check in daily with a ResLife employee as a way to ensure that their mental health doesn’t deteriorate during their time away from campus. BC has also recently added a mental health module (to be completed by all students) and more University Counseling Services resources in an effort to address an expected rise in mental health crises amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Updated 7:26 p.m., October 4, 2020.
Preventing a COVID-19 outbreak on campus requires personal responsibility from all BC students, but it also requires the administration to hold up their end. Students in isolation expect their needs for health and learning to be met. By listening to the experiences of isolated students, the BC administration can work to ensure that students can continue learning without concern for their health or well-being.