Zach Zimmer’s roommates at Benedictine College had grown accustomed to seeing him stressed.
But on the first Saturday in September, the college junior got them worried. He was running a temperature of 101.5.
“We knew immediately at that moment,” Zimmer said, “that this could be something more serious.”
The northeast Kansas school suggested he isolate himself in a hotel room the college would arrange. His roommates quarantined in their apartment. A few days later, a test showed Zimmer had contracted COVID-19.
Before the school year started, Benedictine decided to test all of its athletes and offer tests to the rest of the student body. Those initial tests showed 38 students and seven staff members had the coronavirus. After that first week of classes, more students tested positive, far exceeding the college’s predictions.
Clusters like that broke out at campuses across Kansas with the start of fall classes. That put hundreds of students in varying forms of quarantine. Some stayed in their dorm rooms or apartments. Others got secluded in hotels or returned to their hometowns.
In the month since Kansas colleges reopened, quarantined students reported frustration with online classes, getting tested, loneliness and discomfort from getting sick.
Yet they also speak almost fondly of the camaraderie that comes from shared misery and about their confidence in getting college life back on track.
At a Catholic liberal arts college like Benedictine, some students even found some spiritual grace.
“I was lacking in my soul for something,” Zimmer said. “Just the fact that I wasn’t physically talking to people was such an odd experience.”
Video chatting helped, but he still craved human, in-person connection. He managed to pass the time with homework. He started learning to finger pick Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” on his guitar. Mostly, he spent his time in prayer.
“I was able to connect with my creator,” Zimmer said. “That was a beautiful experience.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday 611 coronavirus cases across the 32 clusters at colleges in the state. Two students have been hospitalized.
Paton Buller, a freshman at Hesston College 40 minutes north of Wichita, first showed symptoms two weeks after moving into his dorm.
His nose began to run and he lost his sense of taste. He wasn’t concerned at first. He wrote the symptoms off to seasonal allergies.
But then he had a short-lived fever. He consulted officials at the school and agreed to quarantine in his room.
“It was hell,” Buller said.
Seventy-two hours later, the symptoms went away. But he worried about infecting other people. Despite still not having any sense of taste, the college released him from quarantine. Still, he was determined to isolate himself. Just not in that dorm room.
He moved off campus to a hotel with rooms provided by the college for students waiting on test results. It had cable TV, a private shower and twice the space.
The first day at the hotel, Buller felt fine. He did push-ups and juggled a soccer ball — he’s on the school team.
But his symptoms worsened. And a test confirmed he did, indeed, have COVID-19. He had a terrible mix of insomnia and fatigue.
“It felt like I’d played two soccer games, then a football game,” Buller said. “It was pretty rough.”
Along with more space and amenities, the hotel offered some companionship — at distance. Other students there were going through the same isolation.
And despite not being able to leave his room, he quickly connected with them. Extra apples were bowled down the hall to each others’ rooms. They chatted over video. Alliances were made and broken over online Uno.
A few days after coming out of the hotel, Buller attended a campus poetry night. He performed a poem — “COVID ran rampant inside of each one’s body/ we shall not mention their names because of confidentiality” — mostly dedicated to teasing his hotel companions for their Uno moves.
“I did get a couple of punches on the arm,” Buller said. “But not anything mean.”
Buller still remains confident in Hesston College’s ability to stay open safely. When the state health officials reported 98 cases at Benedictine, Hesston had only seven.
“Sure, there’s flaws. There’s flaws in every system,” said Buller. “But I think with the issues going on here … they handled it well.”
Grounded on campus
Mary Harpole had been looking forward to getting back to classes for her senior year. She and her four roommates had agreed exposure to the virus felt inevitable — even if they followed all of the school’s pandemic rules.
“I think that truly Benedictine’s way of doing it is the best way that they can be doing it right now,” Harpole said.
Four days after classes started, a roommate tested positive. Harpole went into quarantine.
“It came sooner than I thought,” Harpole said.
Other than walks for fresh air, Harpole and her roommates — excluding the one sent off to isolation — were told to stay in their campus house for 14 days.
Wi-Fi problems were a particular nuisance in the home. The personal relationships Harpole had made with professors — part of the appeal of a small college like Benedictine — only made missing the chance to engage with them in-person worse.
“If you ever had questions,” Harpole said, “it’s just easier to just raise your hand and ask it in an in-person class.”
Outside of the classes, locking down actually went well — like you would expect from four close friends sharing a home together after months apart. A pre-quarantine Walmart run gave them plenty of supplies for kitchen experiments. They enjoyed the weather on their back patio. Even the online courses were a bonding experience.
“We all did have our moments of, ‘Oh, my goodness, this class is getting frustrating. It’s hard to do this online,’” Harpole said. “And we were really able to be vulnerable with each other.”
Harpole and her roommates all agreed to stick to Benedictine’s restrictions — before, during and after their quarantine. At the start of the school year, it was common to spot students not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing rules.
The school did enforce its rules: $25 fine for getting caught without a mask; $75 for the second time. A third offense could involve getting kicked off of campus.
Still, not every student followed those rules.
“There wasn’t, at the beginning of the year, the seriousness of it,” said Linda Henry, the vice president of student life at Benedictine College. “The masks, they’d wear them sometimes. Sometimes not.”
But the spike of cases early in the school year changed that. The campus came together and prayed. Students began taking the rules more seriously.
“Now, I see everyone wearing masks,” Henry said. “Everyone kind of gets it a little better.”
After Atchison County officials grew concerned about the spread at Benedictine, the college agreed to keep students on campus — outside of grocery pickups and medical appointments — for two weeks starting Sept. 5.
On Sept. 9, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported a cluster of almost 100 cases at Benedictine College, though the college said that didn’t match its numbers.
Benedictine’s rule restricting students from leaving campus for two weeks ended last weekend. The school now has two active cases.
Harpole’s quarantine ended up building her confidence in the school’s handling of the virus. For her, two extra weeks of online classes and staying at her campus house was a good trade for getting back into the classroom — a trade she thinks the other students would be willing to make.
“The quarantine was hard, but it’s definitely worth it to be on campus,” Harpole said. “And I can see a lot of Benedctine students saying the same thing.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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