Testing positive for COVID-19 is an unwelcome surprise. But when some Pomona College students got their lab results over the last two weeks, they didn’t expect the news to get even worse from there.
Still, Pomona students in isolation tell TSL the experience has often left them feeling isolated in more ways than one. From surprise roommates in rooms designated for one to a lack of basic cleaning supplies and repeated disconnects on when and how students could leave or test out, the experience is frustrating students who say the college should have been able to see these issues coming.
In a Jan. 21 email to the Pomona community, President G. Gabrielle Starr said the school’s positivity rate was “far lower than our medical experts projected.” The final rate for the week of Jan. 16 was 2.95 percent, a total of 44 student positives, according to college data.
Only a third of available isolation housing was being occupied, Starr said. But students were still complaining of cramped housing conditions and general disarray.
Although the email states that isolation housing is “clustered on campus,” some students were sent to isolate on Jan. 21 at 1200 N. College Avenue, referred to as “the Dean’s house,” which is not on Pomona’s campus map.
“I feel incredulous that [the one third number] is accurate because a lot of us are being put in spaces that should only be for one person but have three beds in them,” said Daphne Chapline PO ’23, who was initially assigned to a triple in the Dean’s house for isolation. “And I don’t think that college admin were really fully prepared if they had to move some of us totally off-campus.”
In an email to TSL, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Arwari said COVID-positive students are “housed in a variety of College-owned spaces, including Oldenborg, campus houses and Oasis apartments. Having various locations allows us to meet student accommodation needs and provide appropriate services for these individuals.”
Many students on campus who test positive for COVID-19 have been sent to isolate at Oldenborg Center, Pomona’s international language residence and dining hall. In the building, which has been slated for a complete reconstruction for years, students with COVID-19 have been made to isolate in forced doubles — single rooms with an extra bed crammed in — which share a bathroom with a room on the other side.
SeoJin Ahn PO ’23 contracted COVID-19 over winter break and reached out to Dean of Students Avis Hinkson to be excused from standard PCR testing protocol, as was required of all students returning to campus for the spring semester. Those who test positive for COVID-19 are supposed to take an antigen test to prove they are not contagious, since a PCR test may come back positive even if the subject is no longer contagious.
Ahn didn’t receive a response from Hinkson and had no choice but to take a PCR test when she arrived on campus, which, as expected, came back positive. She was immediately told to isolate despite trying to clarify matters with the dean of students office, with whom communication was consistently unclear.
Nonetheless, she began quarantining Tuesday Jan. 18, settling down in her room.
But, right before midnight, she heard someone trying to get into her room and realized that the deans had assigned someone to stay in the suite with her.
Since she has an auto-immune disorder, Ahn was immediately concerned about the risk of re-exposure since she had COVID-19 just weeks ago.
After repeated attempts to communicate with Director of Housing and Operations Frank Bedoya and Junior Class Dean Maura McDinger, Ahn convinced them not to assign any other students to her room.
Ahn was not just concerned about exposure but also the capacity for rooms to house two people.
“There was only one desk per room, so if they’re expecting people to take classes but there’s two people in each room then I just don’t understand that,” Ahn said. “My room, with the two beds, there was just no room for a second desk, there’s no way that it would have been possible.”
Ahn said she felt like there was a lack of planning ahead of time in providing students basic necessities during isolation.
“If I was super sick and had a roommate, I would have lost it, I think. I genuinely don’t think I could have attended classes,” Ahn said. “Just me alone in this space, bodily-healthy, is so anxiety inducing. If I was sick and making eye contact with another sick person that I didn’t know the entire time I just don’t know what I would have done.”
But that was the reality for Anna Resek PO ’22 and Teodelina Martelli PO ’24, two sudden roommates in isolation.
Resek, who is from New York City, took a PCR test on Jan. 14. She had a negative antigen test before flying to campus, but started to feel sick upon arrival. Resek finally got in contact with the lab on Jan. 17 and found out her PCR was positive.
Resek said the room she originally assigned to in Oldenborg was tiny and filled with another student’s belongings upon her arrival.
“I was not told that I would be with someone else,” Resek said. “And I didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
Before Martelli moved into her room, Resek was able to get reassigned to the empty room in Ahn’s suite. Upon realizing there were rooms available, she was confused as to why the college was putting students in forced doubles.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ There’s no one in here and they’re still trying to stack us preemptively or something. We’re supposed to be isolated alone. Why are you putting us in like sardines? Literally, in bunk beds on top of each other in single rooms with no desks,” Resek said.
Martelli similarly did not expect to have a roommate when she arrived at her assigned isolation room Jan. 19.
“[The email] said room 307 has been opened for you. It wasn’t room 307 [along] with this person,” she said. “I went upstairs and unfortunately forced my way in on a very surprised roommate who was in the middle of a class.”
Resek requested a desk for Martelli when she realized she would have a roommate. No second chair was provided with the desk.
Martelli said they had to adapt to taking Zoom classes at the same time.
“It’s not perfect but the fact that I don’t have an option makes it not terrible … you just do it,” she said.
Another concern for the roommates was that Martelli had tested positive four days after Resek.
“I feel like there are a lot of uncertainties and I didn’t really feel like anyone directly ensured our individual wellbeing,” Resek said.
Martelli was also worried about the comfort level of Resek and Ahn, with whom they were sharing a bathroom.
“I don’t find [the housing situation] to be particularly fair for people who have already been here for days longer than I have,” Martelli added.
According to Arwari, students with COVID “may be housed with others who test positive within a few days of their diagnosis; this is in alignment with best practice as outlined by LA County.” Pomona’s procedures were developed in consultation with the SHS medical director, Hamilton Health Box consultants and LA County health officials, she added.
One student in the class of 2024, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was also not prepared to have a roommate.
Like Martelli, she assumed that the college would have informed her if she had to share a room with someone. She was also surprised to learn that her suitemate, with whom they shared a bathroom, was already on their ninth day in isolation.
Under the new CDC guidelines, the colleges have updated their policies to allow antigen testing six days after a positive test. Ahn was hoping to get out as soon as possible since she did not think she should be in isolation.
But again, Ahn faced several communication barriers in trying to get out of isolation.
“Dean McDinger had said she would reach out to [Student Health Services] and other involved parties before but, when I finally made contact with SHS and contract tracers, they had no idea who I was,” she said. SHS asked her to send a timeline of her symptoms and include evidence such as emails and texts with professors or deans in order to let her leave isolation.
Resek was hoping to get an antigen test to get out after five days in isolation, but was told by McDinger she wouldn’t qualify for one because her positive test was from an off-campus lab.
“I think the deans are swamped with something that they are not equipped for.”
To her surprise, SHS told her that the contact tracing team didn’t “even have an open case” for her.
“I honestly would prefer to at least verify or see if I could [test negative]. I’m fine waiting till the tenth day if it’s not safe, but I want the option,” she said. “I want to have my right to this test that was promised.”
Resek strongly criticized the Pomona administration’s handling of her case.
“Honestly [throughout] this whole process I feel like admin has been gaslighting me and giving me misinformation and then when I go over their head and talk to SHS they tell me something else,” she said. “It’s a complete lack of emotional compassion for people who are literally sick. It’s like [admin] are forgetting that we’re sick and they’re supposed to take care of us.”
Martelli and Chapline were asked to submit a daily health check via the SHS portal, but were confused when they could find no such form. It turned out that policy had been officially discontinued Jan. 17, though McDinger continued to instruct students to do so.
“It speaks very much to how unprepared we still are for the pandemic, the fact that SHS merely tells us our viral state without having much of another say on our isolation, but the deans do. I do not find that [the deans] are trained in medical matters,” Martelli said. “I think the deans are swamped with something that they are not equipped for.”
The Pomona sophomore in isolation said she was frustrated by the lack of supplies available to students in isolation.
“We didn’t have any cleaning supplies, there was no soap in the bathroom at all,” the sophomore said, adding that she and her roommate have been using the body wash she brought as hand soap.
Resek felt just as frustrated with the lack of information from administrators.
Resek said the email with isolation instructions had a “little graphic with Cecil’s packing list like we’re going on vacation or something.”
“I learned from other people who were in isolation that there was nothing here so that’s how I knew what to bring,” Resek said. “It’s completely reliant on the fact that students should have not forgotten anything or have friends come at their beck and call. It’s really messed up.”
Ahn added that there were multiple instances in which one or more of the suitemates did not receive meals.
Maddie Ward PO ’22 said there were numerous hiccups in her isolation process as well. She did not receive isolation information in her Oldenborg room, she did not receive a message from SHS about scheduling an antigen test and she did not get lunch delivered twice within six days.
Resek emphasized that more avenues for support and communication should have been provided.
“All roads lead back to McDinger, who only has an email and there’s no phone number,” she said. “And there’s no medical personnel that might be able to provide [symptom] relief.”
McDinger later conceded in an email to Resek that “the isolation instructions could have been more specific, and I recognize that your room assignment was complicated due to factors beyond your control.” She declined a request for an interview, sending TSL Arwari’s statement in response to questions.
Like Ahn, the Pomona sophomore also faced roadblocks when trying to get an antigen test on her fifth day.
She thought she would be able to test on Friday but was later told she had to wait until Monday, and the thought of being in isolation for longer caused her to have a panic attack.
She used the 7C Health app for support, but “they were so monotone and dismissive,” she said, adding that the practitioner on call with her told her she was just getting worked up.
“Do I know that I’m negative? No, but I was at least looking forward to finding out. So that was really stressful,” she said. “They should test us if for no other reason just to get us out of here so they can put other people in here.”
“The worst part of isolation is not knowing what is going on and having to chase up admin for resources and information that they promised to provide but haven’t. It’s a complex situation but Pomona has had so much time to prepare for this and they are still just scrambling.”
The sophomore said students in isolation need “mental health support, people who actually give a single crap and don’t make you feel like you’re an idiot or you’re dramatic for feeling and experiencing the things that you are.”
She said that she used the college-provided resource in hopes of learning methods “to not legitimately lose my mind in [isolation],” but ultimately felt worse after the call.
Ahn’s ordeal came to a conclusion the morning of Jan. 21, when SHS informed her that she was cleared from isolation.
“Dean McDinger had said that SHS was having a delay and that she was the liaison to speak through, but I found it much easier to reach both SHS and [the] contact tracers than any admin and get answers,” Ahn said.
As Resek put it, “there’s just a lack of transparency.”
“The worst part of isolation is not knowing what is going on and having to chase up admin for resources and information that they promised to provide but haven’t,” Ward said. “It’s a complex situation but Pomona has had so much time to prepare for this and they are still just scrambling.”
Siena Swift is a Politics major at Pomona College in the class of 2023.