Since the beginning of fall 2021, the college has conducted over 74,000 Covid-19 PCR tests for students, faculty, and staff. Forty-one of those tests have come back positive; 22 of those have been from students. Per the college’s isolation protocol, students who have tested positive for Covid are required to isolate for 10 days.
With the shift back to in-person learning, isolation has taken on new forms but also presented new challenges, such as keeping up with fully in-person classes that have no remote option. The Student interviewed several students who have tested positive for Covid this semester on their varying experiences with this mandated isolation.
Most students’ experiences entering isolation began the same way: they received a call from the Health Center early in the day, as they ate breakfast or attended morning sports practices.
Ella Peterson ’22 was in Valentine Dining Hall when Director of Student Health Services Emily Jones called her and recommended she return to her room immediately. “I panic-packed as soon as I got back,” she said. “They gave me a packing list.” Peterson relayed that she had a few hours in her room before a staff member drove her to the Rodeway Inn in Hadley, a hotel that the college has been using for isolation since last year.
This semester, students have had the option to isolate themselves at home instead. Student A, a first-year who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of response from the administration and professors, said she was instructed not to use public transportation, but her mother was able to take her home within a few hours of receiving the positive test result. Christian Powers ’23 was also able to travel home because he lives close by. Both students reported that the ability to spend the isolation period at home instead of at the hotel was necessary for preserving their mental well-being.
Peterson lives within driving distance, but said she has “two working parents [who] would have to isolate for two weeks.” She noted that being at home “could have been a nice option if you're somebody who lived a little closer to campus, and you had parents who were able to make those choices.”
Students who stay at the hotel receive food deliveries each morning and are helped by an attendant who is available at all times to be a “genie,” according to Peterson. “He's like, … ‘you text me on this phone number what you need, and then I'll get it for you, and I'll bring it to your door,’” she said. Peterson added that students are able to request any items they need, such as “activity bags and yoga mats.”
Students expressed differing opinions on the outside time they were allowed at the Rodeway, which could only be spent in the hotel’s parking lot. “I just sort of do laps in the parking lot,” said Peterson. “Usually I'll call somebody and I'll talk to them. … It's nice to get some fresh air.” On the other hand, Student B, who preferred to remain anonymous because of fear of backlash, described the outside option as “boring,” since his request to run beyond the parking lot was denied.
In a joint statement to The Student, Jones, Dean of Students Liz Agosto, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, and Director of New Student Programs Marie Lalor said that conditions in isolation have changed since last year. “Based on learnings from last year, we made the following additional improvements: increased access to time outdoors; improved wireless connection and access to hotspots; more items for student engagement such as puzzles, yoga mats and more; and the ordering of food from local establishments,” they wrote.
Students expressed continued dissatisfaction with the food provided in isolation, however. On a Zoom call with The Student, one student held up a frozen burrito he had received that morning, and explained that it was the fourth day in a row that he had been given the same item. Each student had used DoorDash at some point or had groceries delivered to the hotel.
Peterson had an overall positive outlook on her stay at the hotel: “You can have a delightful free 10-day retreat at Hadley’s former okayest budget hotel,” she said. “That's what's in store for you if you test positive for Covid.”
Some students were far more disgruntled with having to isolate. In a shift from last year’s protocol, vaccinated close contacts no longer need to quarantine upon exposure, yet — as communicated in the college’s emails announcing positive Covid tests — most Covid-positive students have been asymptomatic upon testing positive, prompting doubts over the validity of the positive tests.
Of those interviewed, Peterson was the only student who actually experienced symptoms for Covid-19. She reported receiving “wonderful” care from the Health Center, which kept a close eye on her and even sent a nurse in-person to check on her when she seemed to be developing a sinus infection. The rarity of her symptoms was not lost on her: “I was … unofficially informed that I was probably the only proper Covid patient that at least one of the nurses who I was working with had ever interacted with,” Peterson disclosed.
Student A expressed feeling confused at her positive test result because she was asymptomatic and none of her close contacts later tested positive. “I felt completely fine,” she said, explaining that she asked, but was denied, a retest. When she arrived at home to isolate, she took two PCR tests and five rapid antigen tests, all of which came back negative.
Student A was not the only student who believed they had received a false positive. “I really wish we got retested because I honestly don't think I have Covid,” echoed Student B. He reported that he had taken two antigen tests delivered by friends to the hotel where he was isolating, and received negative results from both.
In a statement to The Student, Jones explained that the PCR Covid test “is very sensitive — meaning that it is good at detecting very small amounts of virus.” The Broad Institute, where the college sends the test samples, runs two tests per sample, and returns a positive result only when both tests are positive.
“Even if a subsequent test comes back negative — it does not prove that the previous test was a false positive,” Jones elaborated. “Studies are showing that vaccinated individuals can often clear the virus quickly and therefore could have a negative follow up PCR test soon after their positive one.”
The college follows the requirement from the Mass. Department of Public Health that any vaccinated individual must isolate for 10 days after a positive Covid test, hence the adherence to the original test result.
Due to his belief that he did not actually have Covid, Student B expressed that the social isolation felt unnecessary. “I feel like I'm left out of a lot of stuff,” he said.
For Student A, the negative follow-up tests were particularly frustrating because her isolation experience had serious ramifications for her academic performance. “I just feel like I'm so far behind and I’m … so worried that I'm not going to be academically successful for the rest of the semester,” she said. “It just made it worse that I didn't even have Covid.”
“I got no help from my professors at all,” she explained, citing their common response of telling her to ask a friend for notes while not offering her an online option. “I just felt like I was drowning in work that I didn't know how to do and there was no help,” she said. “I emailed … all these people, and they were like, ‘we could get you a note taker, but by the time it goes through, like you're going to be done with isolation.’”
She expressed that it was difficult to maintain a schedule and “feel like I was still in school” while isolating, due to a lack of structure. “I just felt really helpless … like I was just alone,” she recalled. “And no one was offering me the help that I needed even though I was asking … it just felt like … empty help.”
She described the experience overall as “horrible,” and said about the college, “if you're gonna send people away you can't just leave them with nothing.”
In conjunction with the return to in-person instruction this fall, the college decided that “faculty members providing remote instruction to a small number of students fundamentally changes the classroom experience, potentially compromises the education of all the other students in the class, and may place an undue burden on faculty members,” according to the joint statement by Jones, Agosto, Epstein, and Lalor. As a result, the college does not currently provide a remote learning option to students.
Instead, the policy states that “students should be in touch with their professors, who will walk them through what they need to do to stay on top of their class work.” The administrators interviewed said that academic needs are “among the first things discussed,” and described that students are connected to an academic liaison who can help obtain library books and other resources.
According to the joint statement, class deans also play an integral role; they “work with students to connect with their professors to work through the best ways to manage their coursework … [and] to create draft plans that are inclusive of all of their coursework to help them think through the extensions they are discussing with their faculty.”
There is no specific protocol that professors are instructed to follow; rather, “it varies by course” whether professors provide pre-recorded lectures, Zoom with students, or simply ask students to get notes from a classmate.
Some students spoke about how their experience at the college allowed them to manage their academics while isolating. Peterson cited her status as a senior as key to the academic success she achieved while isolating. “I'm comfortable working with professors, I was comfortable sending those emails, sort of just being straight up with what was going on,” she said. Her establishment in the “broader school community” was helpful in getting “an army of note-takers,” forming connections with teaching assistants, and interacting with people in the Office of Residential Life and the Counseling Center.
Several students also reported that accommodations from their professors made for a much smoother isolation experience. Powers said that all his professors allowed him to join class via Zoom. “I was able to technically attend class, and I didn't miss anything,” he explained. “So I kind of just came back and really didn't skip a beat.” Student B also said that his professors had been in good communication with him and had given him alternatives to assignment submissions.
Peterson, too, described her professors as accommodating and understanding. “I mean, if they set up an online opportunity, that would be nice,” she said, “But … I think there's a lot of things at Amherst, where people sometimes want some perfect world situation, and sometimes the setup is just bad… Having to isolate sucks, but for what it is, this is probably one of the better case scenarios.”
Peterson and Powers both expressed hope that students will be able to have a more transparent view of isolation so as to help diminish the fear associated with it. “Definitely be optimistic,” Powers said, “because I think I was really appreciative of how the school handled it.”
“Frankly, when I got that call, I was really scared,” Peterson stated. “And I think, If I had known that this was going to be what the experiences were going to be, I wouldn't have been so scared… I also hope that people are more comfortable knowing that if you test positive, it's not your fault. Everyone's not going to hate you. And you're going to be okay, you're going to be decently well taken care of.”