WILMINGTON — When first-year UNCW student Julie Littlefield woke up with a sore throat on September 3, she expected the worst. She hustled to a campus health clinic for a Covid-19 test, then was told to gather her belongings and start preparing for residency in UNCW’s quarantine dorm.
“They just said to go after I packed my bags,” Littlefield said. “And the nurse recommended I get something to eat first, so that’s what I did.”
Littlefield was quarantined in Galloway Hall while she waited for her test results. UNCW’s website says all symptomatic students eligible for testing through the Student Health Center “will be moved to quarantine as quickly as possible while waiting for test results.”
Littlefield said staff in the dorm were kind and helpful, and that residents built camaraderie by talking to each other through opened windows. Her roommate dropped off Lysol wipes so she could feel safer using the shared bathrooms.
“I saw it for what it is. I wasn’t expecting anything luxurious when I got there,” Littlefield said. “It kind of was like a little jail cell.”
As part of UNCW’s strategy to combat the spread of Covid-19 on campus, the university repurposed its oldest dormitory, Galloway Hall, into a quarantine and isolation space for students. In total, there are 150 beds on campus reserved for students in quarantine and isolation. Students under both categories of surveillance are housed in the same building, but on different floors.
The number of students in UNCW’s quarantine zones peaked on Sept. 8 at 71 individuals. On Sept. 22, UNCW reported that 13 of its reserved beds were in use; 11 tests were done through the Student Health Center on that day.
Littlefield said she had no known contacts with Covid-positive individuals, and her sore throat and other symptoms went away after a few days. On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, three days in, her initial test results came back negative.
“I was on the same floor as people that are literally coming down with it, and I was like, ‘I’m using the same bathrooms as them. I feel like I’m at greater risk to get it here than I am, like, not here,’” Littlefield said. “Why am I still here?”
Littlefield said the experience was not overwhelming or overly unpleasant, but added that the food situation had some weaknesses.
Meal-plan issues for quarantined students
“I just think the whole system of feeding us could have been done a lot better, especially that we didn’t get an official breakfast. That part really bothered me,” Littlefield said. “One of the guys at the desk who was there a lot, I don’t know if he brought milk or if there was milk in the fridge back there, but he’d let me make cereal with the little tiny boxes they gave us.”
Littlefield said students in Galloway Hall were fed twice a day, and accessed a pantry for breakfast foods and other items.
“We could go downstairs and get stuff from the pantry, which they called it, for breakfast, which was like muffins and stuff,” she said. “One of the muffins I got, I actually opened and it was covered in mold, so I had to go get another one.”
In an interview, UNCW Provost James Winebrake said the university “has been working hard to make sure that Galloway is up to snuff in terms of the facilities, the access to food.”
“I know there have been, in the past, some students who have raised concerns about the conditions at Galloway. My understanding is that those concerns have been addressed,” Winebrake said. “In some cases, I think students weren’t fully aware of some of the options that they had, for example, to order extra food. So I think we’ve resolved all those.”
Littlefield said students ordered their two meals days in advance through a spreadsheet, which was limited to two on-campus dining options.
“Half the time they were supposed to bring me my meals, they didn’t for some reason,” she said. “One time the guy at the desk told me I could take someone’s who didn’t take their lunch, because they weren’t there anymore. So like, I got to eat, but it was like what this random kid had ordered.”
A UNCW student emailed the New Hanover County Health Department earlier this month, describing related allegations concerning Galloway Hall. The Health Department discussed the email during a meeting with UNCW soon after.
Internal notes from that Sept. 14 meeting say UNCW “Student Health staff is on site at Galloway Hall until 5:00 p.m.” In the following weeks the staffers would extend their time at the dorm until 10:00 p.m. (County Health Department leaders urge all citizens to practice the three Ws and to get a flu shot).
Littlefield’s quarantine continued in Galloway through Labor Day weekend. Tuesday, UNCW announced its decision to “de-densify” campus by separating first-year roommates in double-occupancy rooms.
Littlefield decided she would return home to Rhode Island, and started making phone calls to Student Health. She was told a few more days in quarantine were still scheduled, but if she were to test negative for a second time, she could leave Galloway.
She took a same-day test and the results came back negative, she said. Student Health cleared her to leave.
“It was so quick. I just like took a bin upstairs and put my stuff in it and took it out to my friend’s car and just shoved it in, and gave them my key and left, ” she said.
UNCW pledged pro-rated housing refunds to first-year students who left their dorms for a less expensive space on campus or to return home. Littlefield’s father, John, said he’s yet to see that happen.
“And now she’s home and I’m still waiting for some type of refund or whatever,” he said. “I just thought the meal deal wasn’t handled very well. You pay for three meals and they’re only going to give you two, and if they forget you, that doesn’t help, right?”
Faculty left in the dark on ‘de-densification’ policy
When Professor Nathan Gove first heard UNCW would be relocating hundreds of first-year students, it was from a colleague who sent a screenshot.
It showed a UNCW parent Facebook group post that referenced the Seahawk article that broke the news.
“As far as I know the vast majority, and I would probably say all of the faculty — unless they’re married to deans or some of the people in student affairs or something like that — they would not have been given advance notice either,” Grove said.
Nathan Grove is a UNCW chemistry professor and the president of the Faculty Senate. He said UNCW’s Sept. 8 relocation initiative was not shown to professors before its dissemination to the student body.
Grove and other UNCW faculty members said the policy caught them off guard. UNCW expected the move would affect nearly 800 total students, with around 300 of them returning to their permanent homes. In follow up communications to faculty, The provost’s office said UNCW hoped to have the majority of the moves underway by Sept. 16.
“I think the reality is they all recognize the fact that we could have done a better job,” Grove said. “I was very frustrated myself, but at the end of the day, I understand why the decision was made. I think we could all agree that it should have been communicated better and sooner. But it happened, you know.”
In an interview, UNCW Provost James Winebrake said faculty have done a high-quality job in adapting to the different pressures introduced onto the university by the pandemic, including the sudden relocation of first years.
“I think in the future we’ll do a better job at aligning all those communications, but you know, it was unfortunate that the word on de-densification got out before the faculty were able to get engaged,” Winebrake said. “Ideally, we would have lots of time to engage a lot of different stakeholder groups. We still try to do that, but sometimes decisions have to be made fast.”
By Grove’s account, the administration’s disregard of faculty perspectives in this critical decision contributed to student confusion. Faculty are continuing to adjust, he said.
“I’m the type of person that I take people at their words unless you give me a reason not to. And so I accept that. I recognize that people make mistakes,” he said.
Grove said as he understands it, the policy was partly a reaction to concerning trends in Covid-19 case data, which show 18-to-24-year-old people in New Hanover County account for a higher percentage of positive cases than does the 25-49-year-old demographic.
Winebrake said in the wake of faculty reaction to the previous notice, the administration guaranteed that faculty will be looped into future messaging to students. Governing a university through the unprecedented complications of a pandemic requires nimble thinking, he said.
“We have to also be agile and able to make decisions relatively quickly,” he said.
Both Grove and Winebrake are cautiously optimistic that UNCW will make it through final exams and into the spring semester without any major Covid-19 related hiccups. They both also said the current moment is unpredictable.
“Honestly, if anyone tells you they know the answer to that, they’re lying to you,” Grove said.
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