To combat COVID, Georgia Tech wants students to move to single rooms

Students are fighting plan, warning it could have ’negative effects on their mental health’

UPDATE Wednesday at 2 p.m:

Because of the outcry from both students and parents, Georgia Tech is now leaving the decision to relocate to a single room to students. In a new email, Tech Housing said:

Since yesterday’s announcement concerning a plan to move student residents to single rooms, we have received a great deal of feedback from students and parents. We understand these concerns and want our actions to be responsive to them. Consequently, we will not require any student to move if they want to stay where they are.  

Let us first explain why we are trying to de-densify residence halls. The surveillance testing data we have collected over the past three weeks indicates there is a high risk of spread between roommates. When sharing a bedroom, we have found that one positive case can quickly and easily become two positive cases. In some residence halls like the Glenn, Towers, Hanson and Matheson, we have seen high positivity rates, the risk of contagion between roommates is of particular concern.  We know that 40 percent of all known cases in residence halls are linked to double occupancy.

At the same time, we agree with the many messages we have received from students and parents that a of the first-year college experience is living in a residence hall with a roommate and forming friendships with other students. Many of our students already have formed close connections with their roommate, their hallmates, or their LLC. And in an environment where there are limited options for socializing safely, the bond between roommates can be even more important.     In trying to balance the health risks associated with sharing a room with the benefits of living with a roommate, we agree that the best solution is to give students and their parents both information and a choice. Therefore, we are encouraging but not requiring students to move to a single room. Also, we will allow students currently sharing a room who choose to move to single room the opportunity to choose a new living space among our available inventory.

Original blog post:

My twins attend different public colleges in Georgia, and their campuses are not on the same page in COVID-19 testing and protocols.

Georgia Tech is taking it more seriously, too seriously at times according to some parents reaching out about the strict protocols and the dearth of social options for their students. That plaint comes mostly from parents of new Yellow Jackets, who did not have a social network in place before they arrived at the midtown campus three weeks ago. Those laments may increase after Tech President Ángel Cabrera announced today that students who share a dorm room will be moved into single rooms over the coming weeks.

Many of those in a shared room – the traditional dorm rooms of old with beds on either side – are freshmen, and their roommates have in some cases become their social lifelines because so few opportunities for close-up human contact exist and so many classes went online.

President Cabrera’s explanation: “While I realize many students would prefer not to live in single rooms, our data shows that living in separate rooms can reduce the risk of infection.”

I called Tech for more details on the plan. Do roommates who both already tested positive have to separate? Can parents request their kids stay put for their mental well-being? Will they put freshmen in the suites of upperclassmen where everyone has a private bedroom but share bathrooms, kitchens and living areas?

I was told more details will be released in the next few days. The email from Cabrera reflects how hard public campuses are trying to restrain the spread of COVID-19 and keep campuses open. For example, the president urges students report any high-risk behaviors they witness and refrain from traveling this Labor Day weekend so they don’t bring the virus back to Tech. A new report today suggests Memorial Day weekend travel and gatherings played a role in Georgia’s summer coronavirus surge.

A student petition has already sprang up to fight the relocation plan. It states:

We believe that this would be detrimental to students for the following reasons:

  1. To many students, this decision could have enormously negative effects on their mental health. For some, roommates are the sole source of social stimulation, which can mitigate the effects of stress that classes bring upon them. Furthermore, uprooting students from their current living situation may exacerbate this stress and lead to more serious issues.
  2. Many roommates split their belongings in half to reduce the costs of moving into a dorm. Students depend on these resources and having them divided could negatively impact them, both financially and in standards of living.
  3. As was seen on move in day in August, social distance is not strongly enough enforced to be effective. We believe that a mass migration of students will cause a large influx of new COVID cases.
  4. The new date to cancel housing is 09/02/2020, one day after this information was sent out. There are no details about when, where, or how this relocation will occur. This is EXTREMELY predatory, as students are being forced to make a huge decision without any idea what the consequences may be. Housing is extremely expensive and this decision may cause financial hardship upon students and their families.
  5. Some students living in East Campus dorms are on Greek Life meal plans. Moving them to West Campus will add a 40-minute roundtrip walk to pick up their meals. Many students will not be able to fit this into their busy schedules and are not able to change their meal plans.
  6. There may be some asymptomatic clusters existing within dorms. Breaking these up and spreading them around campus could result in a large scale outbreak.
  7. If students decide to cancel housing and return home, they may unintentionally spread to their families. Many students have parents that are at risk. We do not want to possibly harm these individuals by forcing students to cancel their housing contracts.

A key point that parents at all Georgia public campuses have to remember: All of these policies and restrictions are designed to keep universities open.

Here is the full email from the Tech president:

As we settle into the third week of classes, and a month after we began returning to campus, I’d like to provide an update on surveillance testing data and share some new preventive actions that we are taking to promote health and safety on campus.

As of August 30, we had tested more than 21,000 samples through the Georgia Tech surveillance testing program. This has provided us with invaluable data and has helped us identify clusters and isolate cases more effectively. I want to thank the many faculty, staff, and students who built this impressive infrastructure and who work tirelessly to collect and test samples, to analyze the data, and to take care of students who test positive or may be at risk. My gratitude goes also to the thousands of students, faculty, and staff who are testing weekly.

Like many of you, I was concerned about the rising number of infections toward the end of last week, yet I was reassured that surveillance data was allowing us to more accurately target at-risk populations, such as Greek housing and some areas within our residence halls. I have also been reassured by the fact that we have so far not seen an increase in the rate of positive tests among faculty and staff since the start of the semester despite a higher number of employees now on campus.

Based on what we are learning from the data, I would like to announce some actions aimed at reducing the risk of infection, especially among residential students.

  • Housing and Residence Life will begin moving students who share a room into single rooms over the coming weeks. While I realize many students would prefer not to live in single rooms, our data shows that living in separate rooms can reduce the risk of infection. Details will be sent to all resident students shortly. Students will incur no extra costs and will be given time and assistance to move. In some circumstances, students may have the opportunity to take advantage of the long weekend to minimize disruption.
  • Stamps Health Center has added additional staff to support contact tracing, which helps those who might have been exposed to the coronavirus seek appropriate medical attention and avoid spreading the infection to others. That staff includes the redeployment of six full-time employees in addition to 40 volunteers in other departments who have been trained and are ready to take on the work in this area.
  • We have expanded the available space for isolation and quarantine by reserving additional hotel space. Contrary to erroneous information which has circulated in some social media platforms, students are not being isolated or quarantined in currently occupied dorms. We are using an empty building at 10thand Home Streets for individuals who need to quarantine until they can be accommodated safely elsewhere.
  • To reduce the risk of exposure and transmission, we are advising students not to travel over Labor Day weekend. We are working to compile a list of socially distanced events and activities for students who remain on campus during the holiday weekend.
  • The Interfraternity Council is not permitting any registered events this entire semester. All students have been advised to continue with restricting access to houses to residents only and not to travel in groups.
  • In order to incentivize regular, weekly testing and to lower the risk of infection, we are considering restricting BuzzCard access to certain buildings on campus for those who do not test regularly. We will continue to assess the need for this action and will communicate details if it’s necessary.

Once again, I want to emphasize that no one should be stigmatized for testing positive. If you test positive or have Covid-19-like symptoms, let us know so we can help you get better and stop the chain of contagion from affecting anyone else. If you test positive, you have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of many others by taking precautions and isolating yourself.

The issue is not testing positive but engaging in behavior that puts others at risk. The Georgia Tech Covid-19 Student Educational and Response Team (CO-SERT) is a temporary collaborative group charged with reviewing reported questions and concerns related to students or student groups and adherence to Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. If you see someone who’s putting others at risk, please report it to the CO-SERT. High-risk behaviors include violations of isolation or quarantine protocols and hosting on- or off-campus gatherings of any size in closed spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained. Such actions are considered violations of the Non-Academic Misconduct Policy.

These are difficult times without easy solutions. I understand that being distanced from each other is difficult. And our efforts to combat this highly contagious disease is adding considerable stress to our lives. I encourage you to find ways to stay connected — just a little farther apart — and, whenever possible, outdoors. Be creative and find ways to study, work, eat, and play on campus while staying safe together. And if you feel distress and need help, please ask for help. The CARE center is available to help with these very real challenges we are all facing. Thank you for doing your part to support the community’s health.