As COVID surges, college students are traveling for Thanksgiving. The CDC called them out in a warning.
After a semester battling the coronavirus, often unsuccessfully, college leaders have one final plea for students heading home for Thanksgiving: Get tested, please.
What's unclear: whether the plea will work.
High-profile failures already have marred dozens of colleges' attempts to hold the fall semester of college in person.Some institutions brought students back to campuses, only to pivot to digital instruction a week into classes, as unsanctioned parties drove up COVID-19 cases. By mid-September, counties with a significant population of college students were fueling the nation's worst coronavirus outbreaks. As those outbreaks continued, state and local governments cracked down, ordering students quarantined to campus, like at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, or asking colleges to send students home, like at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Now, with the Thanksgiving holiday a week away and cases hitting record highs nationally, those college students are preparing to fan out across the country, taking their possible coronavirus infections – symptomatic or not – into their loved ones' homes.
Colleges are scrambling to prevent the resulting spread of the virus. Some institutions have urged or even required students to quarantine or receive a negative coronavirus test before traveling home. Without those precautions, college leaders say, students should consider abstaining from their holiday plans and instead opt for a celebration closer to campus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday chimed in, calling out college students in its advisory against traveling during the Thanksgiving period.
The safest way to celebrate the holiday is "at home with the people you live with," the CDC said. "People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households." The agency stopped short of saying college students shouldn’t celebrate with their families, but did say events that included them would be riskier.
Concerned about additional virus spread, many colleges are telling students who do leave for Thanksgiving not to come back to campus, but to finish the semester online. At the same time, many institutions are cutting their planned semester even shorter as cases continue to surge. Syracuse University in New York announced last Wednesday that its in-person instruction would finish by the next day. Albion College in Michigan said last Thursday that most of its students would have to leave campus by that Saturday.
Some colleges lack widespread testing:Scientists say they need it to stay open
Ultimately, the decision, and any resulting COVID-19 spread, will be in the hands of students – many of whom are trying to do the right thing, but face significant hurdles.
Rohin Balkundi, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, was planning to get tested Thursday and drive home to Dallas on Saturday. The university offers testing once a week to students, and he is worried he could get infected between his test and his trip home. As it was, he had to schedule his test a week in advance and plans to spend about 45 minutes getting it. It's a hassle, but a necessary one, he said.
Some of Balkundi's friends are staying put, but Balkundi said he's taking a calculated risk, since he's able to get tested and drive home in his own vehicle. If he tests positive, he plans to cancel his trip to isolate for at least two weeks. His main concern: that he does end up having the virus and gives it to his parents.
"It starts the whole chain all over again," he said. "And that's something the state as a whole has been struggling with and the country is struggling with."
'On the verge of being mean'
Absent much guidance from the federal government, and in most cases their states, colleges have largely charted their own paths in handling the pandemic. The same approach is true with their Thanksgiving or holiday plans – and many institutions have only recently released those details, said Chris Marsicano, the head of Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, a group tracking response to the coronavirus.
Many universities have stopped short of requiring that their students receive testing before heading home and instead are hoping students will be persuaded by their pleas.
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville has asked students to get tested, receive a flu shot and plan to take their study materials home with them. The University of Georgia in Athens increased its capacity to screen people and is pushing students to get tested by Friday, before returning home. The university is trying to sweeten the deal with a University of Georgia face mask, as well as discounts for campus shops and the bookstore for students who get a test.
Boston University already requires twice-a-week testing for most undergraduates, but administrators are encouraging students to take at least one additional test if they return or stay on campus after Thanksgiving break.
Still, the university's recommendation is that students either stay in Boston for the holiday or go home and not come back. If students do travel and return to campus, officials say they should plan to quarantine in their assigned residence for two weeks, which would coincide roughly with the end of the semester.
The idea, said Kenneth Elmore, dean of students and associate provost, is to discourage students from returning to campus. But he said the university can't force students to stay in place for their quarantine, nor can they bar them from campus. Instead, the college is pushing students to think of the greater good.
“We’ve been pushing that very hard, very strongly, to the point where we’re just on the verge of being mean about it,” Elmore said.
The university is relying on peers to report violations. On-campus students who don’t adhere to the quarantine order after Thanksgiving will lose access to their residence, campus dining halls, Wi-Fi and online courses.
But even the strongest warnings may fall flat for some students. After all, many universities urged or required students to refrain from parties during the semester, with limited success.
So some universities are threatening punitive action if students fail to comply. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which recently made headlines when its students rushed a football field after a surprise win over Clemson University, is requiring students to receive a negative COVID-19 test before leaving the South Bend area. Failure to do so could mean they’re unable to register for classes or receive their transcripts.
The University of Wisconsin system will allow students to travel and return to campus, but only if they test negative before leaving and then test negative again twice more upon their return. Many of the campuses within the system have moved to online instruction.
“If these standards cannot be met, students should not be allowed to return into any classroom or congregated setting following the Thanksgiving break,” wrote Tommy Thompson, the interim president of the UW System, in a letter to the chancellors of the system. Thompson did not say how the university would enforce this guideline.
The State University of New York, which has 64 campuses across the state, has also started requiring students to test negative before returning home.The colleges are moving to virtual instruction after the holiday, but the chancellor of the system, Jim Malatras, said institutions will remain open for students who must quarantine or isolate if they test positive for the virus. Those who fail to comply may face disciplinary action such as suspension.
But the colleges haven't had to use many disciplinary actions this semester, Malatras said. Students have been pretty careful after seeing campuses such as SUNY Oneonta end in-person classes after a virus surge.
“March really, really stunk for them,” Malatras said. “They don’t like being home. So they’ve actually been pushing us harder to do more.”
SUNY didn’t require that all students get a negative COVID-19 test before arriving on campus for the fall semester, but they will be required to do so for the spring semester, plus complete a weeklong “precautionary quarantine.” SUNY has also pushed back the start of its spring semester to Feb. 1.
With new COVID-19 cases exploding, some states and local governments are stepping in to dictate colleges' Thanksgiving and winter break plans.
Michigan recently mandated that in-person instruction for private and public colleges stop for at least three weeks, starting Wednesday — effectively ending in-person instruction before this semester's finals. Philadelphia also required that high schools and universities cease in-person instruction through at least the end of the year, though many of the institutions in the city were already offering many of their classes online.
North Carolina hasn’t shut down in-person instruction. Instead, it’s offering nearly 75,000 tests to private and public universities in the state. The state recommended mass testing before students leave for the holidays, though it isn’t mandatory, said Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s secretary of Health and Human Services.
"We want to make sure that we are not having virus travel from our campuses back into people's homes as they go home," Cohen said.
If all else fails, quarantine
Still, some colleges have offered little or no guidance for students traveling home. In that case, Gerri Taylor, who co-chairs the American College Health Association’s task force on coronavirus, encouraged students to start quarantining now and seek out a test. They should also test again about five to 10 days after they get home.
Students should also quarantine when they get home, though Taylor said they may be able to spread the 14 days between their time on campus and at home if they’re avoiding social interactions and traveling via a private vehicle. Students who have in-person classes the following week should strongly consider staying in place.
Taylor cautioned against an overreliance on test results. Testing, she said, is representative only of one moment in time. Those who test negative should still continue wearing masks, social distancing and following other safety guidelines if they want to avoid the potential of spreading the virus to family members, especially those with compromised immune systems.
Of course, this all assumes that students who test positive are willing to cancel their travel plans. Thanksgiving is often a reprieve for mentally fried students on the cusp of taking their final exams. Many students may have spent much of their semester more socially isolated than they had been in the past.
“If they test positive, they really need to be isolated for 10 days,” Taylor said. “Because otherwise, they will for sure spread when traveling or when they get home.”