When rumors of the lockdown began circulating the night of Sept. 9th, students began to panic.
“I opened my door to people running around in the hallways so I asked my neighbor what was going on and he told me that we were going on lockdown and that everyone was going to the store,” said Ella Murphy, Sellery resident.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison put their two largest freshman dorms on lockdown due to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases amongst Sellery and Witte residents from Sept. 9 to Sept. 23.
Freshmen and Residence Hall staff spoke about what led to the quarantine, how things were handled during the two-week period and how staff and students learned from the experience.
The Initial Decision
The quarantine began at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9, and ended two weeks later on Sept. 23. According to Residence Life, Sellery and Witte saw a 20 percent spike in the number of positive COVID cases prior to quarantine.
“There was a lot of consulting with campus partners and obviously UHS,” said Courtney Lowman, one of two Residence Life coordinators for Witte Hall. “There seemed to be kind of an urgent need to quarantine those buildings.”
According to Lowman and Brendon Dybdah, Director of Marketing and Communications for University Housing, the housing staff had prepared for a quarantine situation prior to the fall semester — but did not expect anything of this caliber.
“We had two buildings, our two largest buildings, both spike so quickly,” Dybdahl said. “We really had to scale up those plans quickly to a larger scale than we predicted.”
Of Sellery and Witte’s some-odd 2,100 residents, approximately 800 students went home during the two-week period, according to Lowman. Residents were allowed to go home at any time during the lockdown — all they were required to do was turn in their key and submit a negative test result to UHS to be let back in after quarantine, according to Lowman.
Despite the chaos, Lowman recognized an awareness amongst students and staff that the lockdown was necessary. “I think there was also a measure of understanding that this was for the purpose of their own health and safety,” Lowman said.
Thursday the 10th, the first full day of quarantine, Residence Life provided food for the freshman outside each dorm. Due to the inefficiency of the system, the housing staff changed their protocol to allow students to go to Gordon Dining Center three times a day for 30 minutes, said Witte resident Emily Barnhill.
Residence Life used various tactics to ensure students were not going elsewhere when they said they were going to Gordon’s to get their meals.
“They had people who would walk around in the Gordon area wearing plain clothes, they were undercover residence staff,” said ex-Witte resident, Kiran Jacob. “The undercover staff would ensure students would get their food and head straight back to their respective dorm.”
Residence Life also implemented identification checks at the doors of each dorm to ensure residents and staff were the only individuals in the building at any given time, according to Lowman. ID checks were also used to keep track of how long students were gone when they left for food.
However, students knew leaving the Sellery/Witte premises wasn’t too difficult.
“There were definitely kids who were out at stores or going into different halls because I don’t think they could track you once you leave,” said ex-Sellery resident Ellie Asher.
According to many freshmen, going somewhere else entirely after leaving to go to Gordon was relatively common. Students just had to be back before the end of the allotted meal time.
Many freshmen, though, didn’t want to risk the consequences of breaking the rules.
“They threatened us with suspension and revoking your housing contract, but I don’t know of anyone that got in trouble,” Murphy said.
According to Residence Life, students were allowed in their floor common-areas during quarantine if standard social distancing and mask guidelines were followed. However, residents were not allowed to go into each other's rooms during the two-week period.
“That was more of a collective decision, I would say, from most of the policy makers in housing because we agreed that during the quarantine period it was best to mitigate as much in-person interaction as possible,” said Lowman concerning the decision to restrict guests in residents’ rooms.
According to students, though, the differences amongst how each floor, each House Fellow and each dorm in general were all handling the situation created some confusion.
However, the residence staff and students alike felt everyone did their best given this unfavorable situation, according to Lowman.
During this unprecedented and often lonely situation, Residence Life tried to help students in any way they could — which often involved increased communication and information-sharing between the residents and staff, according to Lowman.
The housing staff made efforts to support students and maintain the feeling of community that often comes with living in freshman dorms.
“The [House Fellows] did a spirit, dress-up week. So they had a Hawaiian theme one day and people would dress up,” said Barnhill.
According to residents, House Fellows were right there with them throughout quarantine. According to Jacob, the House Fellows did their best given they were going through the same quarantine trials and tribulations as the freshmen.
Despite Residence Life efforts to boost morale, living in quarantine — especially in the dorms — was somewhat of a depressing experience for freshmen.
“I would wake up around 11 or noon because you didn’t really have to wake up for anything unless you had class,” Asher said. “I would never really change into anything other than sweats because we would literally just be in our room all day.”
With so many of the freshmen in Sellery and Witte having gone home for the two-week period and with rules against going into each other's rooms, the freshman that stayed in quarantine endured a rather lonely experience.
“A lot of people on my floor had roommates that left so I feel like that would've been so unhealthy if [they] were alone that entire time,” said Murphy.
According to Murphy and other freshmen, House Fellows were not always strict when it came to rules about going into each other's rooms.
A Communal Effort
In the end, locking down Sellery and Witte for two weeks was a success. “The positivity rate is really low right now so I think the efforts made a difference,” Dybdahl said.
Both Lowman and Dybdahl ensured the two-week period was not perfect but that residents and staff learned a lot. As a whole, they agreed the housing department is now better prepared if another outbreak were to happen again.
“I think that, all-in-all, there was a lot of resiliency and hardwork between staff and students.”