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Nebraskats quarantined after going full swing

The Nebraskats show choir members practice social distancing during their practices.

After a swing choir member tested positive for COVID-19, 14 Nebraskats members entered quarantine Aug. 19.  The first student activity outbreak caught the university off guard.  

The positive COVID-19 case was placed in isolation, while the others were instructed to quarantine by Student Health. 

“We didn’t know if everyone was using [their masks] correctly, and then with the air handling system that was supposed to provide so many air exchanges per hour to keep the air circulation good and healthy — that not being on,” said Cindy Ference, associate director of Student Health. “If you think about some closer contact with dancing and moving on the stage, there was just a lot of factors that just made it seem like a more risky situation.”

Ference said the clear face masks used by some of the show choir members were difficult to secure properly. 

The ventilation was shut off in the Fine Arts Building Friday, and the system was not turned on until Monday. The Nebraskats rehearsed Sunday in the unfreshed air.

“I think that was kind of the nail in the coffin for us,” said Eileen Jahn, the Nebraskats director. 

Zach Petry, a show choir junior, was moved to an isolation room in Centennial Towers East when he began showing syptoms.

 “Based on the supplies I was given, they didn’t provide me with any hand soap and there wasn’t enough trash bags, which they all provided later,” Petry said. “They weren’t going to have me tested, but they were going to have me isolated for 14 days, which seemed like the wrong choice for me.” 

Petry quarantined after testing negative, but until then, Residence Life delivered his meals. The quarantined students were uncertain about going to the Nebraska Student Union for food. Meals for pick-up were not consistently available.

Also, during the Chancellor’s Picnic and two of the Blue and Gold meals, the show choir members were unable to attend or retrieve meals without coming in contact with others. 

Meanwhile, the roommates of the quarantined students were not all contacted. 

“[My roomate] moved down here from Chicago, and he never got an email about it,” said Stephen Johnson, a show choir freshman. “Even though he’s in the same room with me, he was still able to do whatever he wanted.”

Johsnon was also confused when Loper Leaders urged him to attend Blue and Gold events. He returned to his room when he saw the large gatherings. 

The miscommunication didn’t stop there. 

“I actually got an email a week after I was quarantined, and it said that I could socially distance and monitor my symptoms, so basically, I could come out of quarantine,” said Gabi Goeden, a show choir sophomore. “I replied to that email and said, ‘Just to clarify, this means I can go to work, I can go to classes.’ And they replied, ‘Yes, this is what self-monitoring means.’”

A second email said otherwise. 

“I was in Target, and I got a text from [Jahn], and she’s like, ‘Emergency Zoom meeting to discuss this email’,” Johnson said. “So I was walking around Target on this Zoom meeting, and we pretty much got a mildly passive aggressive email from Student Health saying they’ve been seeing some of our students, like people in the show choir, breaking quarantine.” 

Jahn sent a list of quarantine inconsistences to a dozen faculty members. 

Two recipients responded. 

“That was a little disheartening because I thought, this is a group of students that you should be wanting to learn from,” Jahn said. “And this is kind of the first one, so let’s see what we can do better next time. And I just came in a little bit sad because I thought that they didn’t seem interested.”

Eventually, Jahn was contacted Wendy Schardt, the director of Student Health and Counseling, Wendy Schardt.

“With the director of show choir, we kind of circled the wagons, me and [Ferrence] and the contact tracers,” Schardt said. “We identified the areas where we needed to kind of tighten up and be more clear about how we want people to quarantine and isolate, and I called her and I apologized.”

When the quarantined students entered their symptoms into the Campus Clear app, the app sent automatic replies. Other factors were the new contact tracers in training, and Schardt was recovering in the hospital from medical issues during that time. 

When asked why the same problems weren’t experienced with the COVID-19 cases in the athletics department, Schardt said most of the athletes isolated or quarantined off-campus. She also said it was more convenient because Student Health has built a chain of communication with UNK Athletics over time.

Testing can be recommended but not provided by Student Health. Instead, students are directed to other resources, such as the Test Nebraska program at CHI Health Good Samaritan. Testing negative for COVID-19 does not increase a student’s chances of leaving quarantine or isolation. 

Instructions for meals and bathrooms were specified on the Residence Life webpage to clear up confusion in the future. 

As far as why not all roommates were notified, George Holman, the dean of student affairs, said he is not the head of contact tracing, but Residence Life set aside rooms for some of the quarantined students.

“I’ve done 20 openings, but not one of them have been during a pandemic,” Holman said. “So there’s probably a little trial and error going on.”  

In the end, COVID-19 did not spread to the other Nebraskats members, and the show choir continues to follow UNK guidelines during rehearsals. 

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