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Iowa Universities Set Aside Dorm Rooms For Isolation, Quarantine

Courtesy of Linden Hall ISU Facebook page
Iowa colleges and universities have set aside entire residence halls or groups of dorm rooms for students to isolate or quarantine in if they test positive for the coronavirus or are exposed to it.

Iowa's three public universities have set aside at least 725 dorm rooms between them for students who test positive for the coronavirus or need to quarantine after being exposed.

Iowa colleges and universities have set aside a number of dorm rooms for students who test positive for the coronavirus or need to quarantine after being exposed. The goal is to separate students who are sick or might be sick from others who are healthy.

“We’re doing all we can in order to protect our students and minimize the cross contact of COVID from within the group,” said Von Stange, the assistant vice president for student life and senior director of university housing and dining at University of Iowa.

Iowa’s three public universities have at least 725 rooms between them reserved for isolation and quarantine, according to data from student life and housing directors:

Iowa State University: 150 rooms for isolation and 250 for quarantine.

University of Iowa: between 250 and 300 rooms set aside for isolation and quarantine.

University of Northern Iowa: More than 75 rooms for quarantine and isolation, and continuing to evolve.

University public health staff at Iowa State University are notified when a student tests positive for the coronavirus. They contact the student and share the results. They then notify the residential life department, which reaches out to the student to see if they want to stay on campus or return home. ISU Associate Vice President for Campus Life and Director of Residence Pete Englin said the university has a contract with a firm that wears PPE and helps students move into an isolation dorm, or into a quarantine dorm if they've been notified of a possible exposure.

“We tell the student to put all the things they would want to have with them in the center of the room,” Englin said. “Then our moving team meets the student at their room, gathers up the belongings and the student, and transports them to either isolation or quarantine. Then we go back into the room and sanitize the room they came from and get that ready.”

Englin said once a student has completed isolation or quarantine and is cleared to return to his or her permanent on-campus housing, the campus life department is notified. They dispatch the moving team to the dorm that the student is isolating or quarantining in, gather their belongings and return them to their initial housing.

ISU is moving students into Linden Hall if they need to isolate and into Oak-Elm Hall to quarantine. Isolation and quarantine dorm rooms at UI and UNI are dispersed throughout their campuses. UI’s Von Stange said that makes it easier to deliver meals to students from various marketplaces on the university’s 1,730-acre campus. And there’s another reason.

“There's also certainly a perception that you had a residence hall that was only for students who were isolated or quarantined, that that would give a negative perception,” Stange said. “And if it was further away from the students were ... certainly that it’s possible that students wouldn't report it because they didn't want to have to move from this building to that building.”

University of Northern Iowa Director of Residence Life Nick Rafanello said the university was advised by Black Hawk County Public Health to predominantly use single rooms for quarantine and isolation. Single rooms are already spread around campus. The university has also set aside multiple rooms, wings or floors of a couple of residence halls for isolation and quarantine.

“The guidance we've received is that ideally, it should have a public or private bath with a private room,” Rafanello said. “And as you can imagine, traditional residence halls weren't designed with private single bath, single bedroom combinations. We have a number of them, but they're spread out throughout all of our buildings.”

Dining services at the three universities are delivering multiple meals to students once a day.

Quarantine, isolation dorms already in use

Iowa State University required that students get tested before moving into residence halls in August. As of Aug. 13, 141 students have tested positive for the coronavirus out of more than 6,500 tests performed. That is a positivity rate of 2.2 percent.

ISU’s Pete Englin said Monday the isolation dorms are a little less than half-full. Students can isolate on campus or they can go home to recover, per ISU policy.

“We’re seeing about a 50-50 choice between staying here and using our spaces or choosing to go home,” Englin said.

Englin said students are so far abiding by the expectations that they stay in their rooms, and there are consequences for those who don’t.

“Now we’ve indicated folks who don’t want to take the necessary precautions, and I would call it deliberately not wanting to participate in these safeguards and mitigation strategies, we would cancel their contract and have them move off campus,” Englin said.

UI did not have information on how occupied these dorms are at the time of the interview. Stange said if students who are quarantining or isolating do not abide by the expectation that they stay in their dorm, the university has “some options.”

“Certainly we can identify that to the Dean of Students Office,” Stange said. “We're going to try to educate them on the importance of needing to isolate or to quarantine. And I mean, if all else fails, we may just ask them to go home … in situations where they just don't understand what their responsibilities are.”

University buildings have card access control. ISU’s Pete Englin said campus staff can tell by someone’s access card use if they’ve left one of the dorms.

“The only thing we’re seeing right now is a few folks would open the door in order to get some touchless food delivery,” Englin said. “That would be true for anybody in any [university] community right now – if they wanted food delivered it’s kind of more normative behavior.”

Rafanello said UNI students are not monitored once they’re in the two types of dorm rooms.

“We encourage them to stay in their rooms as much as possible but obviously that's not something that we can necessarily require and force,” Rafanello said. “Black Hawk County Public Health has advised us that students obviously could go outside if they need to get fresh air for their personal well-being. They just need to make sure that they're wearing a face covering, wearing a face shield, not interacting with people, avoiding any other individuals.”

Plans if dorms for COVID-19 hit capacity:

Asked what each university would do if the quarantine and isolation dorms hit capacity, Rafanello of UNI and Englin of ISU both said they don’t anticipate that happening. UNI has a number of additional rooms it can use if it needs to if students choose not to go home. Some off-campus motels and hotels have said they would be willing to house ISU students who have COVID-19. UI is looking at other options it can use if it runs out of space.

On-campus housing pressure from leaving dorm rooms, residential buildings open?

Keeping rooms or entire residential buildings open for isolation and quarantine did not shut out any students who wanted to live on campus, all three housing leaders said.

“As a matter of fact, our housing applications are still open. If students want space today they could apply for housing,” Stange said of UI on-campus housing. “So we have space. I think part of it is we’ll have probably a little smaller first year class this year than we did last year.”

Stange continued, “And knowing that we were going to get into this, we just were diligent about setting aside spaces for quarantine and isolation.”

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.