Nova Scotia

How post-secondary students, schools are coping with mandatory quarantine

While students coming from outside of the Atlantic bubble to attend post-secondary institutions say those in residence are under pretty strict watch, those living off campus are dealing with more of an honour system when it comes to their quarantine.

'The majority of the system relies on an honour system,' says third-year Dal student

Michelle Scully is a third-year student at Dalhousie from Toronto. (Submitted by Michelle Scully)

When first-year student Sabrina Fauteux arrived in Antigonish from Ottawa last week, she was allowed one person to help her move into her dorm room at St. Francis Xavier University.

Then, she and over 350 other students were left to set up their rooms by themselves — starting the first day of two weeks in isolation on the university campus.

"Everybody wants to follow the rules," said Fauteux in a phone call from her dorm room. "We all know if they don't, there could potentially be an outbreak.

"A lot of schools haven't been allowed to go back. We know we're lucky and we want it to be relatively normal, so we want to do the best we can so we can have a better time later."

While students coming from outside of the Atlantic bubble to attend post-secondary institutions say those in residence are under pretty strict watch, those living off campus are dealing with more of an honour system when it comes to their 14-day isolation period.

Sabrina Fauteux is a first-year psychology student at St. FX University. She is in isolation at one of the university's residences. (Sabrina Fauteux)

"I actually know people who have, despite the fact that we have this mandatory quarantine, they will go for a walk for example, because they can't deal with the fact that they are inside for so long," said 20-year-old Michelle Scully, a third-year student from Toronto who is living off campus in Halifax and returning to Dalhousie University.

"There's truly no way of actually tracking it. The majority of the system relies on an honour system, that people are going to be honest and do it."

But as the rapidly changing pandemic continues to throw new challenges at Nova Scotia's universities, many say they're pleasantly surprised about how the quarantine is going so far.

"It is a huge undertaking," said Elizabeth Yeo, vice-president of students at St. FX.

"But we've found that over the course of the last week, things have really been improving."

Requirements for students

Students who arrived from outside of the Atlantic region on or after Aug. 20 must complete three COVID-19 tests during their isolation period.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said international students are automatically checked by police to make sure they are isolating during the 14 days.

For students from elsewhere in Canada, they would only be checked if someone made a request.

Students are also required to complete a daily digital check-in, which asks if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, if they are isolating and refusing visitors and avoiding public places. 

The check-in email also asks that they have been honest and truthful in their response, and that it is an offence to provide false or misleading information.

If the student does not complete the process, or something in their response requires a followup, their institution is notified and must check on the student.

Living in residence

St. Francis Xavier has a COVID-19 testing centre on campus, along with providing mobile testing for students in residence. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Many schools provided residence space for students needing a place to isolate and NSCC, which does not have any residences, made hotel rooms available.

Fauteux, who is in isolation at St. FX until Sept. 10, is only allowed to leave her room if she needs to use the washroom. She spends most of her days reading, working out, watching Netflix and looking forward to a single hour of time outside.

"We all leave in our nice line, six feet apart in our masks and we all get to go sit in a massive circle in our field," she said. "We have a little social interaction, it's just very socially distant."

Fauteux said she's made friends in her residence because of this outdoor time, and they often check in with one another throughout the day.

She said her residence advisors set up Zoom meetings for everyone to have dinner together, adding that she's "never eaten so much in her life" as the school provides three free meals a day for students.

Sabrina Fauteux said her residence advisors have put on several Zoom dinners for first-year students, including this theme dinner on Wednesday evening. (Sabrina Fauteux)

On Wednesday night, Fauteux said her advisors planned a theme dinner and everyone got dressed up to eat together online.

"It is kind of fun, I like it," she said with a laugh.

Yeo said staff thought it was important to have virtual events for students, especially those who have just left home for the first time.

"We felt that providing that sense of community and support would be essential for their well being and ability to feel part of the St. FX community," Yeo said.

Dalhousie University was unable to provide an interview, but spokesperson Janet Bryson said in an email that students were given the option to self-isolate in residence, and the university is pleased with how that process has been going.

At Acadia University, there are 40 international students isolating in residence. By Saturday, the number of students in quarantine on campus will be up to 220.

Both Acadia and St. FX have mobile testing units on campus that are able to administer COVID-19 tests to students in their residences.

There are 40 students in isolation at Acadia University residences. (Robert Short/CBC)

But both schools also say they are unclear what would happen if a student in residence tested positive for COVID-19, because at that point the situation would be taken over by Public Health.

It's unknown whether other students living in the residence would be notified of a positive case in their building.

The Department of Health and Wellness declined an interview request.

Chad Johnstone, director of residence and student life at Acadia University, said the residence team is providing meal deliveries, which allows them both to check on the students' mental health and make sure that they are following their quarantine.

"It's not something that we take lightly....There is a zero-tolerance policy for students who fail to adhere to those protocols," he said.

Living off campus

While those in residence can be kept under close watch, it's a different way of isolating for students living off campus.

Lori Foran, director of student awards and experience with NSCC, said students are "hyper vigilant in wanting to follow all the processes" when it comes to isolating.

Students from NSCC were required to work with the school to create a quarantine plan, and staff follow up with those students throughout the 14 days.

"We really stress that the reason we're being asked to do this is to protect the safety of themselves and our community," Foran said.

Mary Caplice, 20, is a third-year St. FX student from Toronto. (Submitted by Mary Caplice)

For Mary Caplice, a third-year St. FX student from Toronto, the code of conduct and potential academic repercussions are why she's taking the quarantine seriously.

Students living off campus at St. FX were provided with a support person — one of 250 volunteers from alumni and community members — who can do grocery runs, pick up any necessary items and check in as needed. There is a similar program in place at Acadia.

"The community is very cognizant right now, so we certainly hear from community members when there may be concerns of students who are not self-isolating off campus," said Johnstone.

But Caplice said there haven't been any physical checks from St. FX apart from their support person.

"We live among residents of the town, it's not just students all living together. So I think you feel more watched, so you feel more that you need to do the proper isolation," she said.

"But what I've heard from people in Halifax, it's not the same. People aren't honouring the commitment to isolate."

'You get cabin fever really quickly'

In Halifax, Scully said there hasn't been much contact from Dalhousie or Public Health to ensure the isolation is being followed, apart from her daily check-in email.

"I think the system is quite arbitrary," she said, adding that it's been a different experience for her and her five roommates, who have all been quarantining in their home.

She said some rules, like each of them having to use a separate bathroom, just aren't feasible in student apartments.

But Scully said she has no plans to break quarantine even though she could probably get away with it.

"I've always considered myself a bit of a goody two-shoes. If I'm told to follow the rules, I'll follow them. It doesn't mean it's not hard. I've had a lot of urges to go outside because you get cabin fever really quickly," she said, adding that she understands people are scared and Nova Scotians want to keep the COVID numbers low.

"They want to avoid an outbreak, so for me it seemed obvious that if you're asked to quarantine for two weeks, it ultimately doesn't take away a lot of your life."

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