The building currently known as Neihardt Residence Hall housed students for about 87 years before closing its doors to students in 2019. In March, the Piper wing of Neihardt transitioned to fulfill a new purpose: isolation housing for students who test positive for COVID-19.
Any student who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and tests positive for the coronavirus is able to utilize Neihardt at no additional cost. Or, the student may choose to isolate at home.
However, students are discouraged from going home to isolate, according to Tony Rathgeber, the associate director of University Housing.
“We don't want a student to inadvertently expose their family members or anyone that's in their household,” he said.
If a student tests positive and wishes to isolate in Neihardt they must contact Residence Life. This allows university officials to determine who the student had been in contact with, check the student into Piper and schedule their contactless check-in, Rathgeber said.
Piper staff members then make sure the room has fresh bed sheets, towels and a pillow, make a key for the student and place the key in a lockbox with a special code for the student to use. This ensures that the student does not come in contact with anyone while checking in.
Each room also has a bed, refrigerator, microwave, closet and thermometer for each student to use. Rathgeber said the thermometer can help students self-check for fevers and monitor their temperature if their symptoms change.
Students in isolation also have access to an app that allows them to pick what meals, snacks and drinks they would like to have, Rathgeber said. They can pick up their selections in-person on the first floor while wearing a mask and social distancing.
If needed, students also have access to a washer and dryer with laundry detergent and dryer sheets.
Rathgeber and the staff inside Neihardt also make sure each resident and staff member is safe and following safety precautions.
“Those staff have really specific protocols that they follow,” he said. “While they're there that could range from obviously wearing masks and gloves and gowns and just all those protective measures that would be necessary for someone in that environment.”
These safety protocols were developed with the help of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and the University Health Center.
Rathgeber said he has also pushed for ensuring each student still has connections with people outside of the isolation housing. This includes providing a small TV area for students to congregate around within the housing unit.
“I always kind of go back to the student side of things, and what's their experience gonna be like while they're there,” Rathgeber said.
Students in the Piper wing must wear masks whenever they are outside of their room, and each student is expected to follow the Student Code of Conduct.
Not every student experiences the coronavirus in the same way, Rathgeber said, which influences how Neihardt staff care for the residents.
“Some people have little to no symptoms and feel basically fine the whole time. Some students feel really cruddy and have a tough week or 10 days of fighting symptoms and the illness,” he said. “We certainly don't want some students who were there and don't feel bad to feel like this is some little vacation where they can kind of let loose because they may have a next door neighbor that's not feeling very well. We want them to be respectful of that.”
Rathgeber said Piper has 80 rooms with one student in each room, except under certain conditions.
“In most cases, all the students are in their same room, but we have had a few students who are actually roommates and they both test positive around the same time and they want to stay together in Piper,” Rathgeber said. “So we have allowed that to happen.”
So far, occupancy within Piper has remained below 50%, and, on most days, no more than 25 students have been housed in Piper, he said.
However, the average number of students who have been isolated in Piper has not been released due to “privacy concerns,” Leslie Reed, director of public affairs for UNL, said in an email.
“Our priority is to provide our campus community the information they need to stay safe and healthy, while protecting the right to privacy about personal health and medical treatment,” Reed said in the email.
The university also has an off-campus hotel that students can use for quarantine or isolation, Rathgeber said. The UNL community is able to use the private hotel through a property arrangement with the city of Lincoln.
However, the university cannot provide any information about the hotel, such as its name, location or occupancy, due to “privacy concerns” as well, Reed said.
“We're not at liberty to say exactly which hotel or the location of that hotel to make sure that we are being good partners with those people that are providing a really valuable service to UNL students,” Rathgeber said.
Rathgeber said that while the university continues to support students in isolation, there is more everyone can do to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to be mindful of how their actions impact one another.
“While COVID-19 might not be something that could have a direct negative impact on a student, it could on the student in the room right next to them or down the hall or in one of their classes,” he said. “It's important that we think about others really strongly during this time.