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Symptomatic and asymptomatic students who test positive isolate for at least 10 days. 

Credit: Max Mester

After a recent spike in Penn’s COVID-19 cases, more students than ever were forced to learn while in quarantine and isolation. While some reported minimal impact on their academic performance, many students experienced fatigue, struggles with time management and concentration, and stress as a result of confinement and the illness itself. 

During the week of Feb. 7 to Feb. 13, 463 students were in isolation with COVID-19, while 908 students were required to quarantine as a result of exposure to the virus. The University moves both symptomatic and asymptomatic students to Sansom Place West to isolate for at least 10 days, and students exposed to the virus — who are found through contact tracing — must self-quarantine in their rooms for 10 days. 

During isolation, many students struggled with mental exhaustion and differentiating one day from the next — negatively impacting their motivation and organization to do schoolwork.  

After College first year Morgan Zinn tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 3, he moved into Sansom Place West the following day and experienced difficulties with classes, homework, and accommodations due to harsh symptoms related to the virus and other sicknesses. He was released from the isolation housing on Feb. 8 — 10 days after his first reported symptoms.

Since he contracted mononucleosis, strep throat, and COVID-19 at the same time, Zinn said it was sometimes difficult to tell which symptoms were specific to COVID-19. 

He added that the fatigue he experienced was so debilitating that he was unable to leave his bed for four days straight at one point, and he had to miss his classes for the period in which he was in isolation due to fatigue, dry cough, and body aches, among other symptoms.

“I couldn’t move for four days,” Zinn said. “That was really rough — I got pretty behind in work because of all the sickness stuff, which was less than ideal. I was just constantly tired.”

Wharton first year Emma Segerman received the contact tracing call from Campus Health instructing her to move into Sansom Place West on Feb. 9, during a time window that conflicted with one of her classes. While she said her professor was accommodating, she had to miss the class and ask for an extension. 

Since Segerman said she was “99% asymptomatic,” this was the only instance she had to miss class or ask for an extension. 

While in Sansom Place West, students reported difficulty concentrating within the four walls of the dorm.

Zinn said his perception of time suffered not only because of his illness, but also because of the isolation, explaining that his fatigue and sleep schedule resulted in abnormal circadian rhythms. 

“Everything was one giant blur,” Zinn said. “It was hard being isolated and everything, and the days just kept blurring together over and over and over again.”

Segerman agreed that an altered sense of time in isolation impacted her learning, and described a period in which she completely lost track of time prior to a class after failing to determine whether it was morning or afternoon.

“I'm not going outside — like I have windows, but it's just a view of the other Sansom buildings. So I'm not really seeing daylight changing, or people walking around,” Segerman said. "It’s like a casino, because you don’t see the outside.”

She said that, while not being able to go outside makes concentrating on work much more difficult, she tries to improve her focus by going to the other side of her double room for a change in location. 

Like Zinn, College senior Erico Solis, who had to quarantine in Lauder College House after his suitemate tested positive, said that lacking a change of scenery while confined to his room had a negative impact on his ability to focus. He said the source of the problem was having to use the same area for everything, which meant that schoolwork, sleep, and free time all “blurred” together without a clear distinction between areas of rest and work. 

“Everything that I do to relax is in eyeshot actually; you don't have that luxury of keeping everything away from you because it's all right there," Solis said. "Keeping yourself organized — keeping everything from just distracting you — it’s difficult."

Engineering first year Vaishnavi Pachava, who is currently nearing the end of her second quarantine in Riepe College House as a result of contact tracing and two possible exposures, similarly said that the lack of variation in her room's environment has been mentally exhausting. 

“You get three things to see if you're in your dorm room: your computer, your bed, and your window. These are the three places you’re usually at, so you don't get a lot of variety there,” she said. 

Pachava said that it has been challenging to stay motivated to complete schoolwork because the breaks that she takes do not feel as rewarding. She said that she had been looking forward to the Engagement Day on Feb. 12, for example, before she had to go into her second quarantine. 

Now, Pachava said she uses trips to throw out her trash or wash her dishes as “pretty pathetic” breaks from schoolwork.

Other students in isolation and quarantine also reported issues with concentrating on class assignments due to COVID-19-related stress and a lack of structure and routine.

For Megan Li, a Wharton first year and a member of The Daily Pennsylvanian's podcast staff, stressing about the possibility of contracting the virus from her roommate, who tested positive on Feb. 5, led her to seek deadline extensions for her writing seminar assignments while in quarantine. 

She added that she was extremely stressed about getting COVID-19 after reading about its potential long-term effects, including chronic fatigue and neurological health complications. Potential symptoms and the idea of getting sick, she said, were all she could think about, distracting her from her classes and homework.

“I couldn't concentrate for long periods of time. I would go back to [thinking], ‘Hmm, I’m developing a little bit of a headache. I know a migraine is a lesser-known symptom,’” Li said. “It was like, ‘Am I giving myself placebo symptoms? Or do I actually feel sick?’” 

Pachava, on the other hand, found she was better able to concentrate on her class assignments due to limited distractions, although she found that hyperfocus on her studies to ultimately be detrimental to her social life.

“Either you do your work, or you don't do your work. There's really nothing else,” Pachava said. “[But] even though you can concentrate better, you're just not as happy.”