Service Deferred: Volunteer Work and Mandated Quarantine

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Just over a month ago, fourteen days before students began arriving on campus for the spring term, the Dean’s office sent an email that required undergraduates to rapidly rethink the transition from quarantine to interaction with the larger New Haven community.

Rather than the fourteen-day arrival quarantine that had been imposed at the beginning of the fall semester (and contrasting with a Dec. 8 message that described “an arrival quarantine lasting up to ten days” after move-in), Dean Melanie Boyd, SY ’90, announced that students’ phased arrival quarantine would last until the first day of March.

While students have been able to move freely around the Yale campus since Feb. 15, leaving campus in any way is prohibited until over a month into the semester. No physical interaction with the surrounding city, no restaurant visits or shopping trips, no walks through East Rock—and no in-person community service work.

While the university’s new quarantine length reflects the latest public health protocols and the current heightened risk of viral transmission, it brings with it an easily-overlooked side effect: student volunteer organizations that were able to adapt their operations to the pandemic last semester and continue serving the New Haven community in-person will not be able to resume their work until the quarantine ends.

This is a thorny situation with no easy solution: a Yale policy ostensibly designed to protect New Haven residents from coronavirus exposure is simultaneously preventing students from assisting members of the community working to provide essential services to these same residents. This change has forced student volunteers to adjust their expectations and find ways to adapt to the lengthened restrictions.

In the past year, many Yale and New Haven community service organizations have taken big steps to perform their work completely remotely. Refugee and Immigrant Student Education tutors reach their pupils through Zoom; Volunteer Income Tax Assistance workers set up and utilize a completely digital filing process; an online Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP) COVID-19 Relief Fund replaced the project’s usual Fast fundraiser. But there are some jobs that fundamentally cannot be done virtually. How does one, for example, deliver food to a soup kitchen through a computer screen?

Given the strict nature of the arrival quarantine, many student groups that necessarily operate in-person have had no choice but to delay their service operations until Mar. 1. One such group is Kitchen to Kitchen (K2K), a YHHAP project that transports leftover dining hall food to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK) on Temple Street. Andrew Jackson, BR ’22, a K2K project head, said that the program was able to essentially run normally last semester after instituting increased food safety, social distancing, and sanitization procedures. However, this spring’s altered quarantine posed an extra challenge to the group. Without the mobility necessary to deliver dining hall food to DESK, their in-person work is on hold until the campus quarantine is lifted.

“It’s been a little hard with everybody having to come to our virtual events to get recruited, but that’s part of the pandemic. Besides that, we’re pretty excited for March first,” said Jackson, who is also a member of Yale’s Public Health Education for Peers, a COVID-era undergraduate group that educates students on public health measures to prevent coronavirus spread. Jackson explained that the lengthened quarantine has created a notable, but not overly problematic, change in K2K’s timeline; even without quarantine restrictions, the group usually starts their operations two or three weeks after the start of the semester. 

K2K leaders have spent their extra quarantine time preparing, recruiting more volunteers, and working with Dwight Hall to acquire a car that will facilitate transportation; last semester, they delivered on foot because the car they had for many years broke down. “It’s given us some more time to amp up our volunteer base so that we’re pretty much ready to go on March first. We’re about two weeks out from that, so it’s looking pretty good,” said Jackson.

Jackson’s concern had less to do with the extended quarantine itself than with the timing of Yale’s announcement about it, although he was quick to sympathize with the difficulty of making and communicating plans in advance during a highly unpredictable pandemic.

“At first, I was definitely a little annoyed about it. I know that it’s for the good of public health, and it’s definitely important that we have this longer quarantine, but it was a little frustrating,” said Jackson. His team had been planning for the next semester over winter break, and anticipated beginning their operations on Feb. 15. “And now we’re like, ‘We have to wait a whole [extra] two weeks.’” The shortened timeline means that K2K only gets two and a half months to deliver food to community members in need this semester—and it also means that more Yale dining food will go to waste for the entirety of February.

Despite the obstacles, K2K is ambitious about the work they plan to do in the later part of the spring semester. Jackson emphasized, “We’re ready and chomping at the bit to get started and get as much food as we can over [to DESK]… We’re just looking to really make an impact this semester a little bit more than last semester, so [the delay] was kind of disheartening. But I’d say we’re making it work, and it’ll come soon enough, and we’ll be ready to go.”

The Mar. 1 release date created similar issues for the Migration Alliance at Yale (MAY), whose advocacy team works closely with Connecticut’s Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) to sign Yale students up for the annual Run for Refugees fundraiser. The run, usually held on the streets of New Haven and featuring hundreds of area residents, is IRIS’ largest fundraiser of the year, and the funds generated by Yale runners, often fully sponsored by their residential colleges, contribute significantly to the nonprofit’s budget.

This year’s Run for Refugees was initially set to occur in a COVID-safe format from Feb.1 to 7, with participants completing their own individual 5k runs at any point in the date range and wherever they could be socially distanced. The run was later extended by a week to accommodate New Haven college students’ expected arrival quarantines.

But then Yale’s Jan. 14 email came out. Atia Ahmed, BK ’23, the head of MAY Advocacy, quickly relayed the information to IRIS: “At that point my mindset wasn’t so much asking them to change the dates, because this is a big event. I just let them know that at this point we are still going to do our best to recruit students, but obviously this is going to hinder our efforts and it might affect the number of students that sign up to participate in the run.”

Under Yale’s extended quarantine, it would have been far more difficult for students to participate. Restricted to their residential colleges, they’d have to complete their individual runs within courtyards or on treadmills, and even after Feb. 15 they’d have to run routes that stayed solely within the Yale campus. And multiple Heads of Colleges expressed to Ahmed that their financial sponsorship of runners was contingent on whether this difficult setup could work—the stakes were high.

Thankfully, IRIS quickly got back to Ahmed with a solution: an entirely new “College Edition” of the Run for Refugees from Mar. 1 to 15, free from the bounds of the month-long arrival quarantine. Said Ahmed, “The funds that are raised from this event are integral to helping [IRIS] provide social services to refugees and immigrants in New Haven… It’s important to highlight their flexibility because it’s a difficult time for everyone and the event is so important. I’m just happy we have been able to come up with this alternative.”

While many in-person activities have had to be postponed, some groups have been able to make changes to their operations in response to the arrival quarantine change that allow them to avoid delays entirely. Yale Community Kitchen, a student-run soup kitchen partnered with DESK and operating out of United Parish House across from Timothy Dwight college, was able to continue serving meals to New Haven residents by using only off-campus volunteers for the time being.

Justin Nguyen, BF ’22, a project head of the Community Kitchen, said in an email to the Herald that no delays or exemptions were necessary for their group, and that they’ve been able to operate at the same capacity (while maintaining public health protocols) as they did during the fall semester, when the arrival quarantine for on-campus students was much shorter.

“We were concerned that the limits to volunteering might be restrictive for us, but it has worked out well so far,” said Nguyen. And while on-campus volunteers and coordinators have expressed that they would like to be able to volunteer, Nguyen noted that “they understand the necessity of the quarantine,” and will be permitted to participate when it is lifted.

The spring policy change has caused one problem for the Community Kitchen: increased stress on their small team of coordinators, which they would normally be able to enlarge with recruiting and training earlier in the semester. “The quarantine pushed back those plans slightly, so our current coordinators each are pulling double shifts at some point during this month,” explained Nguyen.

Though the issues caused by the quarantine’s delay of in-person volunteer work differ among Yale student organizations, they are exacerbated across the board by the fact that the community need for these services is far higher than usual due to the pandemic. According to the Connecticut Department of Labor, between 9% and 10% of the state’s labor force was claiming unemployment benefits in December. “DESK was kind of accepting everything and anything [from Yale dining halls] because the demand is super high, with people without homes around this time [due to] COVID, as well as with food insecurity in general,” said Jackson on last semester’s K2K work.

This dilemma generates complicated questions about how Yalies can best serve New Haven at a time when students’ very presence can put city residents’ health at risk. Many community members are struggling with the pandemic’s wide-ranging destruction. Many Yale students want to help them.

But what should that help look like? How should students aid in relieving the city’s current burdens without further spreading the virus that generates them? It’s a difficult notion to wrestle with, but for many of us at the moment, helping may look like simply waiting for a safer day to come before we jump back into action.

Cover illustration by Robert Samec.

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