Isolated castle or populous city: I felt safer at Kasteel Well

Kaitlyn+Fehr

Photo: Christine Park

Kaitlyn Fehr

By Kaitlyn Fehr

On March 6, all 81 Kasteel Well students were brought back to Boston by the college due to rising concerns about the spread of COVID-19. We were told this decision was made out of the best interest for our safety—yet in the three weeks following our return home, the confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US surpassed China and Italy, making the United States the country with the most cases of coronavirus in the world.   

Coming from the castle, I didn’t realize how scared I was of being back in the United States until I moved into my dorm. Even though students at the Boston campus had dubbed castle dwellers “corona kids”, I knew that they, and I, had a better chance of catching it in a crowded city like Boston. Every time I opened the doors to City Place, I felt like I could feel the virus entering my body. Even now that I’m in a quiet Pennsylvania suburb, I watch people refuse to isolate and fear how bad the outbreak is going to get. 

In deciding to send all castle students home, the college failed to confront the harsh reality that the United States is severely underprepared to contain a global pandemic. As of April 8, there are 395,011 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US, according to the CDC. Yet, in the Netherlands, there are only 20,549 confirmed cases, according to the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM. Kasteel Well students that are now back in the U.S. are more likely to contract the virus in their hometown than they are to contract it in the small town of Well, where the castle resides.

Even after multiple states, including Massachusetts, declared a state of emergency, the United States still does not have enough tests to properly assess the scale of the outbreak. Even people exhibiting all the symptoms have a hard time getting tested for coronavirus in the U.S. 

This is not an issue in the Netherlands, where symptomatic people can easily ask their doctors to be tested, and the results are available within 24 hours . If Castle students were still in Well, they would most likely have access to tests, should they need them. 

The likelihood of students catching coronavirus in a small town in the Netherlands is significantly lower compared to a densely-populated city, such as Boston. We also have to consider that the castle students could have been exposed to coronavirus by flying into Boston Logan International Airport after a man who tested positive for coronavirus flew in and out of Boston just days prior.

Even though travel is a big element of the Kasteel Well program, students still had less exposure to the virus traveling in Europe than they did when they came home. As soon as Emerson learned the virus was spreading rapidly to other countries, they restricted where students could travel. Since Italy had the worst outbreak in Europe at the time, students were not allowed to travel there during the last travel weekend. 

Once they decided to bring us home, we were restricted even further and prohibited from leaving Well, unless it was with the Kasteel Well staff. The no-travel policy kept the virus from infecting castle students and infecting the castle as a whole— This no-travel policy could have been further implemented to protect students, had they remained in the castle rather than returning to the U.S. in March. Students do live in close quarters at the castle, yet if no one is travelling outside the castle, the chances of a student bringing it into that space are unlikely. 

In the United States, it’s hard to take sick days off of work. Often, people are not paid, and many jobs look down on employees that take off too often, even if they are sick.  Employers are not required to offer a mandated amount of sick days in the US, so whatever sick days employees may receive is not guaranteed by the government. 

In the Netherlands, where the Kasteel Well program is located, workers can be absent for up to two years, while receiving 70 percent of their salary. This Dutch policy is just one of the ways the Netherlands was able to prevent their coronavirus cases from rising as fast as they did in countries like the United States.

Coronavirus spreading through employees is a large issue in the food service industry, as customers are directly consuming products that are handled by possibly contaminated workers. When I worked in the fast food industry, where I directly handled sandwiches, I still went to work when I was sick. If I didn’t go in, my coworkers would get called in at the last minute, leading to a hostile work environment because they had to work on their day off. This is a common occurrence in the food service industry, as 51 percent of food service workers report that they frequently go to work sick, according to NPR.

Employees in the United States continuing to work when ill encourages the spread of coronavirus. All it takes is one Subway employee sneezing into a sandwich to infect a new person. In the Netherlands, the spread through employees is not a significant issue due to the different perceptions about employees taking sick days. 

One of the big reasons in bringing castle students back to the U.S. was the concern of 81 students being trapped in Well if the borders closed. While boredom may have driven us mad at the castle, we were protected from coronavirus behind those stone walls in our limited community. I understand that some students would rather be at home than stuck at Kasteel Well, and we should have been given a choice. At that point, if any student who chose to stay contracted coronavirus, it would be on them, not on Emerson. Eventually, the borders will re-open, and any students who chose to stay behind would be able to come home to a safe and healthy country. 

Take all of these factors into consideration and it becomes clear, at least to me, that the Kasteel Well students were safer in Well— especially now that we’ve seen how the US government handled the outbreak. We would have easier access to tests in the Netherlands and would be better protected from even catching the virus overall. At least to me, it seems clear that fear won out over reason in the decision to bring us all home.