Call them signs of the times.
On Tuesday, as they hunkered down for their first full day under quarantine at Marquette University’s Schroeder Hall, students took to their windows and posted messages.
“Is this hell?” read one sign made of multicolored Post-it notes.
More like a dose of reality, as Marquette — like other colleges and universities around the state and nation — deals with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late Monday night, officials quarantined the Schroeder residence hall for two weeks after a cluster of coronavirus cases was detected in the facility.
The university said 373 students live there and 3% tested positive for coronavirus.
Although the total number of students testing positive is relatively low, Marquette has only been administering tests to those who were symptomatic.
Now, all students at the dormitory will be tested this week.
In a response to questions from the Journal Sentinel, Marquette spokesperson Lynn Griffith said the “proactive step” to close the dorm was taken jointly by the school and the Milwaukee Health Department and made “after seeing rising numbers of cases in Schroeder Hall.”
“Marquette’s position is that it is better to quickly isolate those that test positive and quarantine those potentially exposed to contain the cluster and decrease further spread on campus, which could jeopardize our ability to continue to provide an in-person experience for our students this fall,” she said.
Across the rest of campus on Tuesday, masked students walked between the academic buildings. Many took lunch outside or socialized on the grass by the Alumni Memorial Union. The rest of campus was as normal as it could be during a pandemic.
But back at Schroeder?
“Prison.” That’s how Ian Oleson, a sophomore from Geneva, Ill., described the dorm.
“They’re telling us we have to stay in our rooms the entire time,” Oleson said. “We can go to the bathroom and go downstairs to eat, but that’s it. We can’t even hang out in the communal areas or in the hall. You can’t go to anyone else’s room. You’re either in your room, in a communal bathroom or downstairs grabbing food to go.”
“This is kind of starting to shock people, that: ‘Wow this is really here,’ ” he added. “People would hear about cases and stuff but I don’t know how seriously they took it. I feel like this — like closing down a dorm kind of shocks people.”
He said that the virus spreading on campus is inevitable.
“Everyone says that college is some of the best years of your life,” Oleson said. “It kind of feels like they’re getting warped or distorted now. It feels like everything in the world is just weird.”
Oleson was headed with a group of friends to Grand Rapids, Mich. They weren’t alone in bailing out, judging by the students with luggage trickling out of Schroeder Hall.
Meghan Fitzgerald packed up her backpack, duffel and a bag of laundry to head home to Lake Zurich, Ill., on Tuesday. The sophomore lasted one night in dorm quarantine.
“I obviously didn’t want to stay because I don’t want to be cooped up in my room,” Fitzgerald. “If you do leave, they won’t let you back in. Like I can’t even study in my room. Like I wouldn’t be able to focus. It will be nice to go home and be able to move around and go on a run maybe.”
She’s prepared to be away for two weeks.
“I think Marquette’s doing a good job, actually,” she said. “With them closing down the dorm, yeah it sucks, but at the same time, it’s like they’re nipping it right away so it doesn’t turn into this huge problem.”
“If the dorms were completely shut down I think we would get an apartment to at least still feel like you’re in college,” she said.
Hannah Barth took that step in advance after Marquette offered sophomores the option of living off-campus because of the pandemic. Barth and a friend moved into the Library Hill apartment complex across I-43 from the heart of campus.
They didn’t want to end up in the situation that Schroeder residents find themselves. Living off campus makes her feel less at risk for contracting the virus, she said, adding that Marquette should follow the practice of some other schools and not wait to offer testing until someone has symptoms.
Sara Manjee, interim president of Marquette University Student Government, said “the school is doing everything it can to make sure students have the on-campus experience we all came (here) for.”
Manjee, who doesn’t live in the affected dorm, added the quarantine “is definitely something at the forefront of everybody’s mind. It’s a reminder to continue to social distance, mask up.”
Should there be more testing?
Marquette has been operating under a hybrid model of online and in-person instruction. Griffith said in a traditional semester, 96% of Marquette undergraduate courses would be in-person. For fall 2020, the figure has dropped to 61.2%.
Last month, more than 100 faculty members signed a letter asking the school to reevaluate its “deeply irresponsible” plan for reopening.
“We thought reopening the campus with a hybrid model was not the best idea,” said Alexandre Martens, an assistant professor of bioethics in the colleges of nursing and theology. “All the protocols we developed and created relied on student behavior to follow those protocols and rules. It’s very hard to enforce that.”
Martens said “the decision to quarantine the dorm yesterday (Monday) was important and we had to do it. I think the university now has to reevaluate all the protocols, especially the testing protocols to test more to have a good picture of infection on campus.”
The call for more testing was echoed by the Marquette University Faculty United Organizing Committee and the Marquette Academic Workers Union Organizing Committee.
On testing, Griffith said the university is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends testing for COVID-19 for people who have symptoms, people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, or those who have been instructed by a public health agency or health care provider to get a test.
She said the medical team “does not recommend mass surveillance testing of all students and/or faculty and staff upon return to campus. Mass testing gives one a measure of incidence at a certain point in time. However, one’s status can change rapidly within hours to days, so frequent repeated regular testing would be needed to truly identify and reduce incidence on campus.”
Numerous schools affected
The novel coronavirus has been blazing its own trail through colleges.
Late last week, University of Wisconsin-Madison paused in-person classes for two weeks, and on Monday the faculty senate voted to cancel spring break. UW-La Crosse also paused in-person instruction.
Lawrence University in Appleton announced this week it extended the closure of school buildings to the public through the fall semester. Around 850 students, 60% of Lawrence’s student body, are on campus.
This week, UW-Milwaukee stepped up testing. All students who are living in on-campus residence halls have to undergo mandatory screening for COVID-19 every two weeks. The aim is to perform 1,000 tests a week, according Aamir Siddiqi, director of clinical services for UWM’s Norris Health Center.
“We were able to do 193 tests yesterday (Monday) and we had eight positives,” he said, adding that the school has not detected any clusters.
“We’re trying to be proactive in identifying and isolating students who have become positive,” he said. “While the concern is still very high we are also very optimistic we have measures in places that we can keep our functions going for onsite” activities.
During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers voiced support for the state’s university system and its work to combat the novel coronavirus.
“I’m sure there might be little odds and ends that — and communications, one of them — that maybe could have been done better. But at the end of the day, I think they’ve approached it well,” he said. “I know that they’re doing massive amounts of testing in the dorms and with other parts of the campus.”
Journal Sentinel reporter Sophie Carson contributed to this report.