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By Joanna Nesbit
September 15, 2021
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What happens if you catch COVID-19 on a college campus this year? You could be in for a chaotic isolation period, marked by rushed travel home or an unplanned bill for a stay in a nearby hotel.

Most colleges across the country have set aside quarantine and isolation quarters this year, but some are charging for it, an expense that could catch students, or their parents, off guard.

Other colleges have limited or no space in residence halls to allocate, even amid rising regional cases. Instead, those colleges are telling their residential students to plan for isolating or quarantining off-campus.

Yet while colleges generally expect in-state students to go home, that’s not plausible for students who don’t have space at their family home to isolate. And some isolation policies may disproportionately hurt lower income students, who don’t have the means to spring for a last-minute trip home or a hotel room. Unvaccinated students, too, may incur extra costs.

For instance, the University of Albany doesn’t allow unvaccinated students to use campus isolation or quarantine housing, except possibly if they can demonstrate financial hardship. Only fully vaccinated students may use campus isolation housing if they test positive.

With campuses under tremendous pressure to open at full capacity and cut spending this year, requiring students to pay for isolation or quarantine housing is not uncommon, says Heather Zesiger, project director for the American College Health Association’s Higher Education COVID-19 Community of Practice initiative.

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The ACHA recommends colleges require vaccines, but 15 governors, mostly in southern and western states, prohibit vaccine mandates in schools.

“Students really need to check on their college’s policy or risk being unprepared when they get sick,” Zesiger says. They should pay attention to how quickly the virus is spreading in their community and prepare a “go bag” if they need to suddenly move into a quarantine or isolation setting, she added.

Most colleges will require unvaccinated students to quarantine for 7 to 10 days if they’re exposed to the virus. Vaccinated students often don’t need to quarantine at all if exposed to an infected student, but both groups need to isolate for 10 days or more if they test positive.

Campus policies vary widely but are less flexible than last year

While some campuses simply charge students an additional fee for isolation or quarantine housing, others have very limited spots with no guarantees if an outbreak occurs. Still others aren’t providing it at all, regardless of vaccination status.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for example, warns residential students the university no longer provides COVID-19 housing, meals, or transportation.

“Being fully vaccinated is the best way to limit the need for isolation or quarantine,” the website simply states. There’s no information on the website about where residential students should go if they need to quarantine or become ill or how to pay for it, though the university says students can seek guidance from a campus support team to create a plan.

Those action plans should include a location for the self-isolation or quarantine period, says Allison Hirth, a spokesperson from Texas Tech University, as well as access to groceries or meal delivery, medications, emergency contacts and contact information for a preferred healthcare provider.

Texas Tech had announced in July that students would be required to cover costs of isolating off-campus in an attempt to push students to get vaccinated. But since then, it has shifted to be more accommodating. The school will supply spots at no cost for students who have nowhere to go, as well as free interim housing until students can transition to their action plan, like a relative picking them up on the weekend.

Mississippi State University and Florida State University, however, expect students to shelter off-campus or at home and only accommodate extenuating circumstances on a case-by-case review.

FSU’s policy prompted anger from some parents and students on social media with senior Jonathan Marcus calling the policy “absurd” in a tweet, saying that “not every student or family has the means to suddenly return home or buy a hotel room.” Active in student government, Marcus says he’s since learned that a few beds are being provided by the university, but he is frustrated by a “lack of clear public plan.”

Expenses to isolate off-campus aren’t always clear

Some campus plans remain fluid, and others may decide to flex depending on local case rates. The University of Arkansas has much less space this year than in 2020, and it’s encouraging students to go home. But the campus is poised to work with community partners for isolation spaces should the need arise, says Takama Statton-Brooks, director of residence education. The university can house 12 students on campus and roughly 50 off-campus (down from about 270 spaces last year).

“If we thought we were nearing that limit, we would start the process of engaging with our community partners to find additional spaces,” she says. However, she adds, most students would rather return home anyway, where their families can better monitor and anticipate their needs than the university can.

None of the college policies reviewed by Money explicitly tell students how much off-campus isolation, like a hotel, might cost. But the average daily rate for hotels topped $130 last month, according to STR, a hospitality data analytics firm. Also not clear: whether area hotels would be willing to house someone who needs to quarantine or is sick with COVID-19, or whether hotel policies would allow a student under 21 to check in.

It’s a lot to process for an undergraduate and doing so when you’re sick is even more difficult. Make sure you understand what your campus is and isn’t providing ahead of time and who to reach out to for help making a plan, experts say. It’s especially worth talking to your college if you’re a student on financial aid or can’t return home.

Isolation costs are just one way students may pay extra fees this year

Students may be on the hook for other fees, especially if they’re not unvaccinated. Quinnipiac University, where vaccines are required, is fining students by the week until they upload vaccine documents, for a maximum of $2,275 for the semester.

At Southwestern University, a private university in Texas that mandates vaccines, unvaccinated students must pay for their own weekly testing, $35 per test, until they get their vaccine proof submitted. West Virginia Wesleyan College charges unvaccinated students $5 per COVID-19 surveillance test every time they’re selected and a $250 fee for isolation housing if they’re not able to go home within 48 hours. Eastern Illinois University fines students $150 if they don’t comply with mandated testing.

Even if unvaccinated students don’t see direct fees, they may find they can’t attend events. University of Oregon and Oregon State University were the first Power Five schools to require proof of vaccine to attend football games and other events.

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