Students living in Hartley Hall received an email from Cristen Kromm, the dean of undergraduate student life, and Dr. Melanie Bernitz, the senior vice president of Columbia Health, last week notifying them that several Hartley residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and that a potential building-wide lockdown was being considered.
In the email, students were informed that contact tracing protocols were in place and that students who had tested positive for COVID-19 were required to quarantine. If the spread of the virus within Hartley Hall could not be contained, the email stated that a minimum 10-day period of building-wide quarantine would be instituted “for the health and safety of the Hartley residents and campus community.” Hartley residents have since expressed concern over students who have not complied with the Columbia Community Health Compact and the increased number of students on campus this semester.
Columbia residence halls are currently housing approximately 1,800 students total this semester, nearly doubling the number of students on campus from last semester. Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 21, 140 COVID-19 tests conducted at the Morningside, Manhattanville, and Lamont-Doherty testing centers came back positive. From the week of Feb. 9 to Feb. 15, the number of positive student tests jumped from 9 to 26.
The email to Hartley residents underscored the importance of complying with the Columbia Health Compact, stating that the outbreak is likely to have been caused by social interactions within the Hartley residence hall that violated it.
Last semester, there were 258 reports of alleged Health Compact violations, 219 of which took place on campus. As of Jan. 20, less than two weeks into the start of the spring semester, 76 students had already been found in violation of the compact by the Dean’s Discipline process. Non-adherence of the compact can include missing a COVID-19 test, not wearing a mask, or participating in large gatherings.This semester, in addition to adhering to social distancing measures outlined in the Columbia Health Compact, students are now required to test twice a week instead of just once.
After one of her suitemates tested positive, Hartley resident Farihah Chowdhury, CC ’24, was among the residents required to quarantine. She believed the outbreak in Hartley was caused by residents who did not adhere to the Columbia Health Compact.
“I know a bunch of people on campus who go to off-campus parties and stuff like that in apartments,” Chowdhury said. “They probably don’t wear masks and aren’t in groups of less than 10. People who are on campus from last semester are doing the same things they did last semester, but there’s more people, so it’s more dangerous to hang out in bigger groups.”
Ini Ojediran, SEAS ’24 and another Hartley resident, noted that while she was aware of some instances of students who did not follow the Health Compact by gathering within Hartley, the news that an outbreak had occurred in the dorm was still unexpected.
“I’ve heard of some instances where the Health Compact wasn’t being followed with gatherings, but I didn’t know it was to that level,” Ojediran said. “With the suites, if one person gets it, it’s likely the rest of the suite’s going to get it.”
Hartley Hall consists of mostly singles, but the rooms are arranged in suites that can hold up to 15 students at full capacity. Common spaces between students in suites include a kitchen, lounge, and bathroom. According to a University spokesperson, “all public health directives have been strictly followed in managing assignments.” While the number of students living in Hartley is not public, across all nine residential buildings currently in use, students occupy 61 percent of the overall capacity and reside in rooms by themselves with a student-to-bathroom ratio of 4-to-1.
Ojediran stated that the rising cases and possible lockdown has made residents, herself included, more acutely aware of how their actions could contribute to potential outbreaks.
“Now that I know a bunch of people caught it within the building, even when I go to the laundry room, I’m trying to be a bit more careful than I usually do.”
Chowdhury emphasized that an increased student population has made socializing more dangerous than last semester.
“I feel like this semester is a little scarier than last semester just because there’s so many people on campus and everyone’s starting to go back to normal even though we’re not ready for that,” she said.