As COVID-19 cases begin to decline in Maryland and in Prince George’s County following a January spike, the University of Maryland is beginning to see a surge just four weeks into the spring semester.
The spread on the campus is evident. President Darryll Pines announced multiple on-campus outbreaks last week in an email to students. Quarantine and isolation locations are expanding to cover more beds and housing more students than ever before. And on Sunday, the university reported the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases from campus testing this year.
In response to the unprecedented totals, the university instructed all students in dorms and university Greek housing to “sequester-in-place” through at least Saturday.
Under the sequester-in-place order, students must limit activities and remain in their rooms as much as possible, according to an email from the Department of Resident Life. Students can only go outside to pick up their meals from dining halls or to get fresh air in the area immediately surrounding their dorm, per the new guidelines. Floor lounges and other multipurpose rooms will also be closed for at least a week.
Failure to comply could result in as much as expulsion from this university, according to the email. While some students see the orders as necessary to control the spread of the virus, others say the restrictions are extreme.
Prior to the order, it didn’t feel like there were “real” or “heavy” consequences for students who were not social distancing, said Shari Nudelman. The freshman neuroscience major has heard and seen people partying on her floor, many not wearing masks.
She said she hopes the sequester-in-place is a wake-up call for those who were not social distancing.
“I’m glad the administration is putting their foot down on this,” Nudelman said. “It’s better in the long run for us to suffer for a week than for us to be dismissed or to have worse consequences.”
Now, with the order that requires students to be inside as much as possible, most of her friends went back home, she said. But Nudelman is an out-of-state student, so she has no choice but to stay, she said.
Living at home this semester, Burhanuddin Sabir commuted 40 minutes to the campus on Wednesdays and Fridays for his in-person lecture and his job as a weight fitness supervisor at the Eppley Recreation Center. Eppley, and other University Recreation and Wellness operations, are closed until at least Feb. 27.
Sabir agrees that the university needs to “close everything down,” but he also said he thinks the university should figure out where cases are occurring, he said.
Many students abided by social distancing guidelines, Sabir said. People who used RecWell as a way of interacting with others in a safe manner can no longer do so, he said. Now, those who are compliant are “suffering” because of other people’s actions, he said.
“People tend to be more frustrated because they’re like, ‘I’m doing everything — I’m washing my hands, I’m being socially distant, I’m wearing my mask,’” Sabir said. “That sort of hopelessness also comes out, like, ‘No matter what I do, this is not getting better.’”
The sequester-in-place order’s restrictions haven’t greatly impacted Inayat Jain’s day-to-day life so far, she said. But it has affected the music school, she said.
Usually, the freshman communication and vocal performance major would go to The Clarice Performing Arts Center once a week for her vocal lessons. Although her vocal lessons take place over Zoom, she’d head to a practice room in The Clarice for privacy. But now, the building is closed, and Jain needs to figure out where she can take her lessons.
While she does have the space to practice in her dorm, Jain thinks she might have to cancel her classes, she said. And the lounges, which would give more privacy, are closed, she said.
Still, Jain says the new directive is necessary.
“I’m not angry about it,” she said. “It’s just, the way it affects me, there’s a lot of logistical things that I’ll have to figure out, but hopefully my professors will be understanding and lenient about all of that.”
Elisa Bobrin, a parent of a student at this university who lives in Pennsylvania, says that while restrictions are necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus, the sequester-in-place order is drastic. It’s essentially a lockdown, Bobrin said.
Under the directive, residents can only eat in their rooms, and Bobrin worries about the toll such restrictions could take on mental health.
“There’s a whole mental factor,” she said. “I’m not quite understanding why they’re limiting all of this and not providing them with anything.”
Bobrin said that while she gets updates from her son, she hasn’t gotten much clear correspondence from the university about the latest guidelines.
Jeremy Foy, a freshman biology major, also expressed frustration with the order. He said that the restrictions are “overkill.”
While he feels that the order may be effective, it’s not the right way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, he said. The university should allow people to communicate and congregate on the campus, he said, so that they don’t go to “COVID hotspots” off-campus.
Foy also said that the limitations, which make social interactions much harder, could take a toll on his mental health.
Maya Lee, a sophomore graphic design major, also worries about the impact of the restrictions on her mental health. At first, the order came as good news for Lee, who knew that some students were not following social distancing guidelines. The university was “stepping up” and “mitigating the problem,” Lee said.
“But then I realized that it also affected my life,” Lee said.
Lee often met up with her friends outside, even if the weather wasn’t ideal. They would stay six feet apart and wear masks, she said. Seeing them is important for her mental health, Lee said.
She is also fearful of what could come next. While the order will last a week, for now, it may be extended if case numbers do not normalize.
“Not knowing what’s coming next is really scary,” she said.
Diamondback staff Shifra Dayak, Daisy Grant and Christine Zhu contributed to this report.