Life at ‘Ronaville:’ Students deal with personal challenges and build community amid isolation

Coronavirus-positive students and those who have been highly exposed to the virus temporarily relocate to the Cypress Suites for isolation. They have had to quickly adjust their everyday lives. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

From following stricter regulations to creating unexpected relationships, students relocated to on-campus isolation halls have been learning how to navigate the challenges of living under isolation while finding creative avenues to keep old habits alive.

Under isolation, students are given the tough task of adapting to the new reality of living inside the on-campus isolation dorm while coping with a series of rules and regulations, ranging from the way the food is delivered at their front door to how they manage the long hours spent with no direct human interaction. Despite the obstacles, some students still found a way to socialize and share similar experiences right outside their windows.

A freshman biology major, who requested anonymity, was relocated Sept. 12 to Cypress B after testing positive for COVID-19. She has been able to interact with other students in isolation face-to-face regardless of the distance or the circumstances placed by the virus.

“We all opened our windows and started talking, and then more and more people got added [to the group chat],” she said. “The group chat kind of blew up and that’s how we all started communicating. It’s nice having a group chat, knowing that like you’re talking to other people going through the same thing as you are.”

What started as a casual conversation between two to three people through their windows over the corner of Cypress B led to the creation of a group chat consisting of more than 30 people that have been or are currently isolated on campus.

“If I wasn’t in this corner, where we can all talk to people in here, it would be really sad and lonely,” she said. “We’ve kind of created like a ‘Ronaville.’

“It’s kind of a little community of people that are in quarantine and you could just relate to everybody. A lot of people got here on [Saturday] so we’re all going through the same stages of everything and then we like to compare symptoms and stuff.”

For a freshman majoring in civil engineering who has been isolated since Sept. 13, having the opportunity to socially interact with others during isolation helps “normalize the situation.”

“I think it’s so much better,” he said. “Being able to talk to someone, like in person, really makes a difference, no matter how far away they are. I think it definitely helps in normalizing the situation a little bit as you don’t feel like you’re locked, almost like an animal in a cage.” 

However, not everyone has the possibility to socialize through their windows.

A freshman health science major student has also been coping with isolation since Sept. 13, but under different circumstances.

The student, who also requested anonymity, is required to isolate for 14 days after her roommate tested positive for COVID-19, despite testing negative for the virus. She said she hasn’t had any face-to-face interaction since she moved in.

The health science major was contacted by Housing and Residential Education for being in high contact with her roommate. While her roommate was placed in Cypress B, the health science major student was relocated to Cypress A.

“I’m facing [Holly C] and I’m on the first floor so I don’t know if this is only in my room, but my window doesn’t open so I can’t get any fresh air,” she said. “But we do have a group chat, so that’s been fun. That’s kind of how we’ve all been keeping in contact with everyone that’s in quarantine right now.”

As of Sept. 16, a total of 66 students were isolated on the Tampa campus, according to university spokesperson Adam Freeman. About 250 beds have been reserved between campuses for isolation, including 150 beds at the Tampa campus and 100 at the St. Pete campus.

Students living on campus who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus are required to isolate for 10 to 14 days. If a student has a place to isolate off campus, or is able to return home, they can opt out from isolating on campus. 

The biology major student said she contracted the virus when hanging out with friends on campus and one allegedly had symptoms but chose to ignore them.

“At this point, if you’re feeling any type of thing, you need to stay home,” she said.

The student got tested off campus, and when trying to reach the university regarding her health status, she said it was “hard to find who to contact.”

“My roommate and I spent like 20 minutes searching online all over the website, trying to figure out who to contact, and I couldn’t find a single contact. I had to ask a person who was already moved in here because he tested positive that morning,” she said.

Once she found a number to call, she said the process to move into her isolation space was fast but stressful. She was told through an email by Housing that she had one hour to pack all her belongings and essentials and move into her temporary room on that same day at 6 p.m.

When she arrived at her isolation space, the door was open and the keys were inside the room. She said there was no contact with anyone during her move-in process.

The biology student will be isolated for a period of 10 days. For her, every day is different when it comes to her symptoms.

“Every day, you wake up and it’s not the same,” she said. “Yesterday was better than I am now.”

For the civil engineering student, his move-in process was “smooth.”

“As far as my experience so far, it’s been relatively easy,” he said. “The transition from my room to my isolation room was hectic and sudden, but it was made easy.”

To him, isolation hasn’t taken a big toll on his mental health yet.

“I’m pretty occupied with school,” he said. “I’m getting caught up on studying and there’s a ton of free time. It’s not like my schedule is packed so for the most part I’ll read, I’ll watch Netflix or whatever but yeah, basically, I’m still good.”

The students who decide to stay on campus are required to abide by the Student Code of Conduct and Housing policies throughout their entire isolation period. Non-compliance is subject to consequences.

Students who don’t comply with the rules will be referred to the Student Code of Conduct and Ethical Development, which may result in interim suspension, removal from housing without refund and/or removal from campus. Depending on the violation, the student might also be subject to different sanctions, including suspension or expulsion.

Once Student Health Services is notified of a positive test result, students who choose to isolate on campus are relocated to their isolation space that same day. Students are given a period of two hours to pack their essentials, including clothes, over-the-counter medications, bedding and linens and other personal items, and move into their temporary room.

After moving out of their dorms to their temporary isolation assignment, students are not allowed to leave their rooms at any time unless authorized by a health professional or emergency personnel.

“It’s really hard not to leave your room or have the freedom to leave … There are some people that are out of the building right now because they’re getting tested, but they were let by health professionals to leave their room,” the biology student said.

Students will only be allowed to return to their original dorms when they receive clearance from Student Health Services. 

Inside their isolation room, students have access to a microwave, fridge, disposable sheets and a “food starter package” containing snacks, beverages, packaged food and cereal bars. The package is given to all students in isolation and a $20 cost will be charged to their OASIS account.

When visiting her OASIS account, the health science major student said she was not aware of the “unexpected” expense.

“I was very, very surprised when I saw that the starter pack was $20 off of your dining dollars,” she said. “I can understand [discounting] meal plan for dinner and lunch but, I mean, we didn’t ask to be in here, we’re kind of forced to be in here so I think it’s not really fair for us to have to pay when we can’t really go out and get it on our own.”

When it comes to meals, USF Dining Services delivers two meals per day, including dinner that same day and lunch the following day, between 4 and 6 p.m. Breakfast is optional, and students who would like to request it should contact their food service liaison.

With a knock, a big brown paper bag containing two meals and two 500-milligram bottles of water are delivered to their front door. Students in isolation are required to wait until the delivery person has left the area before picking up their meals and wear a face mask when opening the door.

Despite being provided with a daily menu, the health science major student said it is not strictly followed by Dining Services.

“I do wish we were able to kind of customize what we could eat,” she said. “We’ve had chicken almost every night for dinner. They just have like an isolation menu kind of thing and I’ve looked it up and they don’t really go by it.

“It’s kind of hard to even guess what you’re getting for dinner.”

Students with any special dietary needs, including vegan and gluten-free, can make a request to their daily meals by contacting Dining Services. In addition, students are not allowed to order any outside food delivery during their stay.

For the civil engineering student, the meals given during the day lack a nutritious component.

“One thing I noticed is that none of the food is very nutritious,” he said. “If I could change one thing, that would be it. In the starter package they give you, it’s all packaged stuff, it’s all like microwavable.

“I want to be given the opportunity to get what I want because, sometimes, it’s not great, or it’s not nutritious or anything.”

All meals come as a part of their meal plans. Students who don’t have a meal plan must pay a daily charge that will appear on their OASIS account.

Overall, the health science major student said having the food delivered at her front door and not being allowed to leave the room makes her feel like she is “in a prison.”

“I would have appreciated it if the walls were decorated a little bit,” she said. “When you walked in, it was just bare. There was nothing. And I can’t leave and I cannot talk to anyone face-to-face. I can’t even open my window for fresh air. You can’t even say ‘hi’ to the person who is delivering you food.”

For the biology major student, the isolation period helped her appreciate her past “experiences and having the freedom to go places.”

“All of us just want to be able to go outside and walk more than the 30 feet of the room,” she said. “And that’s why we are all talking from our windows because we get to open the windows and get fresh air. But being able to go outside, it’s like something that I know that we all really like.”

Despite the challenges, many look forward to the moment they can step out of their isolation bubble and get back to their old routines.

“I miss it so much,” the health science major student said. “Being face-to-face with someone, talk real-time and have that conversation in real-time it’s definitely something I miss and what I’m really looking forward to when I get out of here.”