Alissa Xiao arrived home from Italy last week. Xiao is a junior at the University of Illinois. Now, she’s spending two weeks quarantined at her parents house in California. Her parents used guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She’s staying in a bedroom in their house alone.
"It's very boring … 'concerned' would be another word I would say. And frustration, maybe with just the lack of information I have right now from the university," she says.
Xiao says a university email told her to leave Italy, but not return to campus until she completed 14-days quarantine.
"The email they sent was kind of vague," she says. "And nothing else was really provided, nothing about what would happen to our academics, what parts of our program would be refunded to us. The main point of that email was: we want all students out of Italy right now.”
All University of Illinois students studying in Italy got the same email. That includes junior Joe Hume, who was traveling in Europe with friends at the time. When they arrived in Poland, Hume says everyone on the plane had their temperature taken by people in protective suits.
Hume says his return to the U.S. was different. “And then when we flew from Warsaw to Chicago, I was in and out of customs in like five minutes. It was almost as if nothing was happening.”
Other students say they experienced the same thing returning to the U.S.
Hume is staying at his family’s house in the Chicago suburbs. He and his family figured out what self-quarantine would look like on their own.
“My family and I interpreted that we're just going to avoid all non-essential traveling outside the house,” he says.
Hume and Xiao haven’t been in touch with their local health departments — and they didn’t know they were supposed to do that.
Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, says that's unfortunate. Her agency is in contact with the handful of university students who have returned to the area following travel in Italy and other affected countries. They are quarantined off-campus with explicit instructions.
Pryde doesn’t know what’s happening to students who are quarantined someplace else.
“I would know if the health department was involved," she says. "But other than that, I don't know. And I know that some health departments are probably overwhelmed, depending on where they're going back to.”
Students were told not to return to campus for now. Spokesperson Robin Kaler says the university knows where all of the students are. But she doesn’t know if they’ve received any guidance from their local health departments.
“We only control the things we have in our portfolio," she says. "And so we’re trying to do the best we can with what we can control.”
Kaler says the university has no way to track whether students elsewhere are sticking to the requirements of their quarantine. It’s basically an honor system.
Universities across the country are grappling with this challenge. Research institutions have students and staff who travel all over the world, and often live on campus in close quarters.
Eric McNulty of the Harvard University School of Public Health says that makes them a unique group with complex health needs. “In this country, we've got so many, so many students, and as well as faculty and staff, that we are a distinct subset of a larger community with specific needs.”
McNulty says the coronavirus won’t be the last health crisis to plague the country’s colleges and universities. He hopes that education and health department officials learn from this experience, and are better prepared for the next outbreak..
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.