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Barnard students who recently returned from China are facing a self-isolation that seems to be less than voluntary. Bwoggers Owen Fitzgerald-Diaz, Vivian Zhou, and Jess Hu contributed to this article.
Sylvia shows me her evening meal: brown rice, dry chicken, and vegetables in a white cardboard bowl. Her meals have been almost exactly the same for the last few days. They are brought to her twice a day, at 12 PM and 6 PM, from Diana or Hewitt. If she is not in her room when the food is brought, she has been told, she may face academic consequences including conduct review.
Although we sit only a few hundred yards apart in different buildings of the Barnard Quad, I can leave my room any time I wish—to go shopping for food or groceries, to go to class, to use the Barnard facilities and student services, to see my friends and classmates. Sylvia Su (BC ’21), like other Barnard students who left China since January 19, cannot leave her single. She is quarantined for an illness she does not have: the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV.
The quarantine story began on Sunday, February 2, when Barnard students received an email from Executive Director of Health MJ Murphy. The email included updates on the new disease, which has now claimed 723 lives in China, with no confirmed cases in New York. Murphy’s email advised students that Barnard had suspended college-related travel to China. It invited them to contact Health Services if they were feeling sick or anxious. It also included a link to a registration form, asking students to fill it out if they had returned from mainland China since January 19.
Students who did fill out the form—largely Chinese students who had left home after the Lunar New Year celebrations, missing the beginning of classes on January 21—received a second email. This one said that, based on their completion of the form, they had been recommended for self-isolation. The CDC defines isolation as such: “The separation of a person or group of people known or reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease and potentially infectious from those who are not infected to prevent spread of the communicable disease.”
However, the actual situation of the students is closer to quarantine, defined as “the separation of a person or group of people reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic, from others who have not been so exposed, to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease.” In some media communications with Bwog, Barnard has indeed referred to it as quarantine, rather than isolation.
By this time, most of these students had already been to a week of classes. Nonetheless, Barnard asked them to stay in their dorms for the remainder of the fourteen days since each student returned from China, and to not use any shared spaces excluding hall bathrooms.
Not leaving the dorms means these students are not allowed to attend classes for a week or more. Without any further accommodations or resources, Barnard simply advised them to work out the logistics of specific arrangements with their professors. In the wake of last semester’s Tess Majors tragedy, many students voiced frustration that the Barnard and Columbia administrations did not require faculty members to reach out to their students and offer accommodations like deferred exams. For the quarantined students, history seems to have repeated itself.
Students like Sylvia were quarantined in their singles. But Barnard student Cindy (BC ‘20) lived in a four-person suite when she was recommended for self-isolation. She was forced to move to 616 with all of her belongings and is now living in an empty dorm surrounded by other quarantined Chinese students.
Quarantined students’ food situation has been problematic from the beginning. Initially, Barnard asked the isolated students to arrange for their own food delivery, which would, against their own rules, require them to leave their dorms to pick up food in the lobby. Later, Barnard reached out to the isolated students again, saying that ResLife would bring them food. But on Monday, no food was delivered at all. On Friday, Sylvia’s food was brought to the wrong dorm. Barnard has recently said it will suspend meal delivery services over the weekend and deliver groceries instead, raising questions about whether the isolated students are allowed to enter the shared kitchens to even utilize those groceries.
Even when it was delivered, the two meals a day are hardly sufficient. “It’s honestly not enough because I also need breakfast, snacks and fruits,” Cindy wrote via Facebook Messenger. “One of the dean emailed me to let her know if I need anything. I didn’t reply because it’s is too much procedure to ask her and she ask res life and so on. I just asked my friend to bring to me.”
When Cindy and Sylvia received the email with instructions about self-isolation, they were confused about how restrictive this isolation actually was. Using language like “assistance,” “recommendations,” and “instructions,” Barnard had never indicated there would be any consequences if the students did not remain in their dorms. But both were in for an unpleasant surprise when they received the same email from Dean Friedman, saying in part:
I heard from Residential Life and Housing that they tried to deliver a meal to you today, but you were not present. I am very concerned that you are not staying in your room during this period of quarantine. […] Not following such directives of a college officer [Director of Health and Wellness MJ Murphy] may result in a conduct charge, as stated in Item 6 of the Student Code of Conduct. Please write me back and explain your absence from your room. If you are not there when dinner will be delivered, I will need to follow up with our Conduct office.
Neither Cindy nor Sylvia had left their rooms for anything longer than a bathroom break, and they were both upset by this email. Not only had they not been delivered their food, but they were now being accused and threatened with a conduct charge that had never before been raised as a possibility. Now, they were being told essentially that they were under surveillance. Sylvia emailed back, asking for “basic trust and privacy” in her ability to self-isolate. She was forwarded to Dean Grinage, who apologized that Dean Friedman’s email “did not feel supportive.”
According to Cindy and Sylvia, the isolation itself was not the problem. It was the poor planning and poor communication, and most of all, the lack of empathy displayed by every administrator involved in the isolation process. None of the initial emails sent to quarantined students acknowledged how the students might be feeling: isolated from their friends, concerned about family back home, worried about falling behind in their classes, and lacking access to mental health resources that required them to leave their rooms. Like other Chinese and Asian students on campus, some even face the pressure of racist and xenophobic attacks from members of the Columbia community, which exploit the coronavirus situation as an excuse.
“All Chinese students, you have family back home that you worry about so much, you have your entire homeland not functioning because of this, everyone is under so much trauma and a lot of things, but the school didn’t even send an email to all the Chinese, Chinese-American, or Asian students saying that they will be supported,” said Sylvia. “I don’t feel or any support or any warmth from Barnard on this. Personally, I feel like basically I’ve been told that I deserve this.”
Sylvia posted Dean Friedman’s email on Facebook on Thursday, Feb. 6. It inspired people to email Barnard administrators, demanding that the quarantined students be treated fairly by the administration.
That evening, Dean Grinage sent out a campus-wide email stating that the quarantine “is an extraordinary inconvenience to the students involved, and an act of selflessness as they do their part to keep our community and themselves safe and healthy.” She also admitted that “this situation is new to our campus and we acknowledge there have been some missteps and miscommunications.” She did not specify whether conduct review is now, or ever really was, a possibility for students who violated isolation.
On Friday, Sylvia and Cindy were sent personal apology emails from Dean Friedman and Dean Grinage, acknowledging that they had not approached the situation with enough empathy, and thus added to the students’ distress. “I appreciate and am glad that Barnard responded to me,” said Sylvia.
But she also hopes for a further official response from Barnard. This will, hopefully, rely on collaboration between Barnard and a group of Chinese students who are currently formulating a response to the quarantine situation. The group will present for Barnard’s SGA (Student Government Association) on Monday.
This is not the first time Barnard has quarantined their students for possibly having a contagious disease, though it is the largest-scale example in recent history. Barnard has acknowledged it was unprepared for this situation. It is clear that the administration mishandled the quarantine process, that they are sorry about it, and that they are, ostensibly, open to the possibility of changing and streamlining their procedures in the future.
Yet deeper questions remain. Is the ongoing quarantine necessary? Is it legally or procedurally justified? And if both of the previous are true, if any of the isolated students really had been infected, would this effort even have been effective?
The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) comes from a family of viruses that originate in animals—like camels, cats, rats, and bats—but can also infect and spread among people. It originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. A possible point of origin is the Huanan seafood and live market, which had a direct connection to the first patients admitted with 2019-nCoV.
It is thought that the disease is spread from person to person when they stand less than six feet apart. It may be transmitted through coughing and sneezing, like the flu. It cannot be spread via packages or objects mailed from China. Symptoms of the novel coronavirus include cough, congestion, and difficulty breathing. It has not been confirmed that asymptomatic people (not displaying symptoms) can transmit the virus at all.
As of February 8, the virus has tragically killed 723 people in China and one person in the Philippines, with 34,886 confirmed worldwide cases. Much of China is now on lockdown, the streets of big cities like Shanghai and Beijing appearing eerily empty. This is one of the reasons why many Chinese students at Barnard and Columbia are taking their isolation seriously, fearing for and sympathizing with the isolation of their friends and family back home.
In response to the deadly outbreak, for the first time in 50 years, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued a 14-day mandatory quarantine. This means that all American citizens returning to the US from Hubei province, or returning from other parts of mainland China and showing symptoms of 2019-nCoV, are being screened at airports and held for the duration of the quarantine in medical and military housing facilities. Non-US citizens who have been in Hubei province in the past 14 days have been barred from entering the country. Neither of these new policies applies retroactively, but were implemented on February 2nd.
The CDC recommends that travelers from mainland China outside Hubei Province with no known high-risk exposure (e.g., living with or being an intimate partner of someone who has tested positive for the virus) undergo self-monitoring with public health supervision. This includes people like Cindy and Sylvia, who are from non-Hubei parts of mainland China, and who showed no symptoms.
Barnard College is not a public health authority, like the New York City or New York State Departments of Health. It does not have the jurisdiction to enforce a medical quarantine on anyone. To do that, local authorities would have to issue a public health order restricting an individual’s movements and contacts. It does, of course, have the right to threaten internal consequences like conduct review.
But it might be the only college that has actually done so.
Princeton University’s novel coronavirus PSA affirmed that it was not recommending or mandating isolation. Harvard students were asked to fill out a health form, and some students are self-isolating, but it appears that the administration is not enforcing it. Stanford and UChicago asked that students returning from China in the last 14 days self-isolate and self-monitor, but did not threaten any academic consequences. At NYU, self-isolating students are being brought food, but again, there has been no known threat of academic consequences.
However, since Barnard did not disclose the possibility of conduct review in its initial email either, it is not yet known how many other colleges have actually threatened or imposed consequences.
In a phone conversation with Jiayi Hu (BC ’20), Dean Grinage said that Barnard “is completely mirroring Columbia’s protocol, and they are taking the same measures as we do.” According to Columbia students in quarantine, this is not the case. Columbia’s self-isolation procedures actually more closely resemble those of other colleges.
Mackinley Wang-Xu (CC ’20), who returned to the U.S. from mainland China on Jan 26 and was isolated on Feb 1, is one of the self-isolating students at Columbia. He said that Columbia’s protocol is not very restrictive at all. He still lives in a single with 5 other suitemates. He has occasionally left the dorm to pick up delivered meals, attend a meeting, and mail facemasks to his parents in China. Unfortunately, he is not being brought meals at all, but this also means he is not being monitored like the Barnard students.
At the moment, we know of these differences between Columbia’s and Barnard’s approaches to the situation: Columbia students are not being moved from suites into singles, they are not being brought food, they are not being monitored by ResLife, and they have never been threatened with conduct review.
Barnard continues to assert that they are following the same procedures as Columbia. As of February 9, Barnard has not yet responded to a request for comment on whether or not Dean Friedman was following Barnard’s protocol when she raised the possibility of enforcing isolation through conduct review.
While Columbia’s coronavirus protocol is less restrictive, it is not necessarily more effective than Barnard’s. Some people did not self-report on the health form at all, so as not to impede their schedule. Those who do self-isolate must still occasionally leave their rooms, including to use the shared toilets and pick up food.
Mackinley feels that self-isolation is indeed necessary to ensure public health, but that the Columbia administration’s attempts at minimizing the contact of at-risk individuals with the population are not sufficient. “I was not given enough guidelines and help to perform self-isolation effectively,” he wrote in an email.
And after all, most of the isolated students at Columbia and Barnard had already been to a week of classes before they were even asked to self-isolate. At the beginning of the isolation period, Barnard students were asked to leave their dorms or buildings for their health checkups, rather than sending health services to them. “That would be really dangerous if I [were] infected,” wrote Cindy.
Some quarantined students feel that the Columbia and Barnard administrations have put up more of a show at public health than an actual attempt to combat the virus. “Of course, if you were doing this because you want to take responsibility for the whole community’s health, yes, I think I would be more than willing to sacrifice my time, my schoolwork, my this and that – but are you really doing it for protecting students’ health?” asked Sylvia. “Or are you just doing this because you are imposed? Just doing this, sort of, almost as a showcase?”
“There is nothing humane about a quarantine,” wrote Mackinley. “They [the Columbia administration] get[s] credit for doing something to alleviate the impact that it has had on me, but I don’t see it being effective.”
For most of the quarantined students, the isolation period ends early this coming week. Barnard has already expressed regret for their management of the virus response, and, assuming the groceries are delivered on time and usable, there is little else they can do to fix the situation. There was a sense of hopelessness in Cindy’s tone when she told me, “I don’t think they can do anything now.”
But many students are looking forward to Barnard backing up their apology with a real policy change. Students will certainly be asked to self-isolate again for contagious diseases like the measles and chicken pox, and we cannot discount the possibility that another outbreak of a lethal disease may happen again.
When it does happen, Barnard (and Columbia) must have an organized protocol for isolating or rehousing their students, consistently providing them with enough subsidized food, offering them adequate physical and mental health services, and treating them, as all people deserve, with empathy and respect.
Image via Riva Weinstein