Phillip Le, CC ’24, is moving across the country for the first time without his family, but he does not know when to book his ticket from Lawndale, California to New York City.
After he was accepted to Columbia through the early decision process in December, Le’s cursor lingered over the button to purchase plane tickets for himself, his mother, his sister, and his sister’s boyfriend. As a first-generation low-income student, Le dreamed of the moment his family would help him move in and tour the city before he embarked on his college journey. But with COVID-19 cases spiking across the nation and unclear campus move-in plans, he decided to postpone purchasing the tickets. Now, six weeks before move-in, Le still has not bought plane tickets, not even one for himself.
On June 25, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a joint executive order with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont that required travelers from states with high levels of coronavirus cases to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. The list of hot spots—which now includes 34 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico—updates daily, adding states with over 10 percent of the population confirmed to be positive based upon a seven-day rolling average.
Columbia has yet to give official guidance on housing for students affected by the quarantine order, though according to COVID-19 task force members, plans are in the works. However, the unofficial guidelines shared with students attending optional University panels suggest that students will quarantine on campus for two weeks and will be allowed to stay in their dorms.
Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm, at a July 23 panel called “Life as a Columbia Student,” said the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation has made it difficult for the University to announce official guidelines for the two-week quarantine period.
“The guidelines are changing daily, so the information I am sharing is what we are thinking on today, July 23. Even in the last week, the number of states that will need to quarantine … is pretty extensive,” Kromm said. “And so what our thinking looked like two weeks ago before the list was so extensive was really different.”
While the Columbia administration is adjusting to changing legislation, these delays can have grave financial impacts on many students. Of the 13 states outside the tri-state area that do not require a two-week quarantine, only six are outside the Northeast. Many students who will need to fly into New York from hot spots are waiting to buy their plane tickets until they hear an official announcement from the University. This has made students fearful that they will have to pay much more for plane tickets.
All Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science first-years and sophomores are invited to live on campus during the fall semester. While the number of COVID-19 cases in New York has steadily decreased since peaking in mid-April, California, Florida, Texas, and Virginia—four of the top 10 most-represented states in the class of 2023—have seen another spike in cases. In addition, over 90 percent of the class of 2023 hails from outside New England, leading to questions about whether the University has the resources to bring these students in safely.
In a July 22 panel, Associate Vice President and Medical Director of Columbia Health Dr. Melanie Bernitz said that students in quarantine would be limited from leaving their rooms as much as possible. Like all other members of the Columbia community coming to campus on their move-in days, undergraduates will be required to take a COVID-19 test at Lerner Hall an hour before their check-in time to establish a baseline for entry to the residence halls.
Bernitz added that students should not worry about finding housing to quarantine. In most cases, Columbia plans to allow students to quarantine in their dorms. According to Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health, the University is hoping to honor New York’s progress with an on-campus quarantine plan in accordance with state regulations.
As of now, that plan has not been released through official channels to students, but Bernitz said it is likely to entail “staying in your apartment or in your room and really only leaving for exceptional circumstances like medical appointments.”
But Le—who, like many other students, has already delayed the purchasing of his tickets for months—can no longer bring his family to New York City because they cannot afford to find someplace to quarantine for two weeks.
Wilfredo Luiton, SEAS ’24, who hails from Texas, feels that the quarantine policy should extend to students from all states, as anyone could carry the virus. Additionally, he believes students should be released from the quarantine period if they test negative after arriving in New York.
“There’s two ways to look at it: the side where I agree with the law, and there’s the side where I understand as a person it’s unfair,” Luiton said. “Personally, I don’t like to break the rules, but if there’s no reason to quarantine, why do it?”
According to the New York Department of Health, “Symptoms of COVID-19 can appear as late as 14 days after exposure. Therefore, a negative test cannot guarantee that you will not become sick. The full 14 days of quarantine are required.”
New York has established measures to enforce its quarantine order. First, on June 25, Cuomo announced that inspectors would be conducting random checks on out-of-state travelers. Then, on July 13, the city required those travelers to fill out forms with their contact information and travel plans before leaving the airport. Travelers—including students—caught violating the order face fines up to $10,000, and in some cases, jail time.
In addition to finding housing arrangements for students who face the two-week mandatory quarantine, the University is crafting a plan that takes both physical and mental health into account, El-Sadr said. Medical and well-being check-ups, as well as food deliveries, for quarantined students are possible parts of that plan.
However, for incoming students like Bernardo Burga, SEAS ’24, who is from the Florida Keys, the quarantine order is yet another obstacle in the way of experiencing a typical beginning to college, even if students get to arrive at their dorms on their official move-in days.
“Not being able to go outside and meet people; starting all your classes completely online; not being able to leave your dorm, go outside, and familiarize yourself with the campus; having your meals delivered to you instead of going to the dining hall and picking up your food—it’s not ideal at all,” Burga said.
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