The signs are forbidding, even slightly scaresome: “ATTENTION VISITORS,” they announce, “Please Do Not Enter This Building or the Surrounding Property. The facility is for the exclusive use of Wheaton College students who are recovering from COVID-19.”
How many students are inside, passersby are left to wonder. How sick are they? And how safe are we, with this makeshift isolation ward in our neighborhood?
On Friday, the Record took an exclusive tour of the mysterious building known as East Campus, a sprawling brick pile located a mile from Joe Bean Stadium, on College Ave. Over the summer, Wheaton’s facilities team, under the direction of the Fall Planning Committee, began renovating the space to address the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus in the fall. In compliance with CDC guidelines and Illinois state law, Wheaton could only resume in-person classes if it provided a large-scale isolation location for students with COVID-19.
Because of its distance from Wheaton’s main campus, the more than 20,000 square-foot building, surrounded by a grassy field, was the obvious choice.
Before it was purchased by the college, the land was owned by Scripture Press Publications and used as an office building. In previous semesters, the college used the building as a mass storage station for unused mattresses, beds, desks, dressers and student couches.
Renovations were completed at the end of August. But more than two months into the semester, the building remains locked and shuttered. East Campus won’t be utilized until the two college-owned houses that serve as isolation wards reach maximum capacity. Empty and eerily quiet, the building has become a monument to a worst-case scenario that, mercifully, has not transpired.
Even so, the building stands ready. Stained carpets and pock-marked walls mix with new beds and desks. Mazes of office cubicles and storage rooms have been transformed into isolation living spaces. Each makeshift room in the complex is unique. Some are cramped with two beds and desks, while others don’t even have a door. One has hardwood floors and another down the hall has tapered carpet. All rooms are equipped with beds and dressers, as well as a porcelain lamp and a little black trash can.
Outside each room is a blue sign with the room number, along with a space underneath for a name to be written in. At the present, all signs remain blank.
The living quarters in East Campus are separated by gender. The women’s wing has capacity for 24 students, the men’s wing for 36. The wings are connected by a long hallway which opens into a sprawling common area. The room has several sitting areas and a ping pong table. Because any students living at East Campus would have COVID-19, students would be free to socialize without masks or social distancing.
“It’s not luxurious, but it’s certainly functional,” said Director of Student Health Services Beth Walsh.
In compliance with municipal codes, the facilities crew installed a fire escape, added fire alarms and sprinklers and installed emergency alert devices and phones. The team also remodeled existing restroom facilities to accommodate more people, a project that required constructing four new showers. They remain side-by-side in the women’s wing, sparkling clean and unused.
“It was really a team effort,” said Director of Construction and Maintenance Services Randy Norbeck. “We had to learn how to work within a new Covid environment.”
Despite the lengths to which the college has gone to make East Campus a comfortable living space, the building has taken on an aura of mystery, even dread. Some students fear isolating at East Campus would be a negative experience. “I imagine it would be pretty lonely,” said sophomore John Bieganek, “I just got out of a quarantine, and the thought of not being in my own space is kind of heartbreaking.”
For sophomore Ria Shim, who has not had to quarantine this semester, moving to East Campus would be the best of bad options. “I was just really glad to hear that if we do contract the virus on campus that we won’t be sent home or hospitalized somewhere else, that we have a space where we can go and heal,” she said.
At the time of publication, the COVID-19 dashboard reflected 1 positive case and 26 close contact quarantines among students, and 3 positive employees with 13 others in quarantine. It looks like East Campus will be unoccupied for the foreseeable future, but will be available if and when cases on campus begin to rise.
“The building is all ready to go, and the team has done a ton of work to make it ready,” Norbeck said, “but hopefully we’ll never have to use it.”
Wheaton College, IL