Thanksgiving is always the final Thursday in November, but this year the timing could not be worse. As the holiday approaches, thousands of college students are going back home for the winter as schools close their campuses, end their semester, or move classes online. What they won’t be ending is the spread of Covid-19.
Cases in the US have risen exponentially over the last few weeks, with daily new cases close to 200,000 and current hospitalizations reaching 80,000. Unlike the previous two waves of cases in the spring and summer, the rise in cases is not concentrated in a single region. Cases are rising in most parts of the country.
Yet many college students are still packing up their suitcases and heading home. Some will be coming from campuses that have lower rates of infection than their home towns. Others will be coming from campuses that are seeing dozens of new cases a day.
“The timing of this holiday, combined with the rates of Covid that are occurring in so many places across the US, combined with the fact that many people haven’t seen their families in a long time … it’s a little bit of an added sting to what we’ve already been enduring,” said Amanda Simanek, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a state suffering one of the worst surges in cases in the country.
There is no official count of how many positive cases have been reported on college campuses during the fall. The New York Times has counted over 321,000 cases in over 1,700 colleges since the start of the pandemic, including faculty and staff who contracted the virus. Some schools, particularly large public universities, have seen thousands of cases while others have seen a few dozen at most.
If what’s past is prologue, the holiday student migration could be a major inflection point in the spread of coronavirus. Research has shown that students arriving in their college towns at the beginning of the fall led to increased rates of infection in those communities. But because many schools have only been testing students who choose to get tested, it is unclear how many students will be bringing the virus home with them for Thanksgiving break.
Some schools that have made weekly testing mandatory for all or a randomized selection of students believe they may be sending students into communities that have higher rates of infection than on campus.
Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said he believes this will be the case for his students given that the rate of positivity on campus is below 2% while Tennessee’s rate is 14%. The US overall positivity rate is currently around 10%.
“It’s safer on campus than in the communities where they go to,” Diermeier said. “It’s not like we’re releasing students with all these asymptomatic cases. It’s just the opposite – our problem was keeping the virus out.”
Vanderbilt has been testing all students weekly, something Diemeier noted takes a lot of resources for schools. “This is super expensive. The tests are super expensive”.
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Even though campuses may have lower infection rates than their surrounding communities, many have started to see an uptick in cases that reflects the general increase rates of infection in the US. A handful of universities, including Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota, Brown University in Rhode Island and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, have moved classes online in the last few weeks after cases in their local communities surged.
Many schools are turning to increased testing before Thanksgiving, with specifics varying widely from school to school, in an attempt to prevent students from bringing the virus home.
A few institutions have opted to make testing mandatory before leaving campus, including the State University of New York system, University of Notre Dame and Colby College. Notre Dame has gone so far as to warn students that if they do not get tested before leaving campus, the school will hold on to their transcripts and they will be unable to matriculate for the spring semester.
Instead of requiring testing before students’ departure, many schools expanded testing and are encouraging students to get tested before they leave campus. Penn State University is giving students the option of using self-test kits instead of going to one of the campus’s testing sites for testing. The University of Georgia doubled the number of students it tested as part of its surveillance testing program right before sending students home.
But testing alone will not guarantee a healthy homecoming, Simanek notes, as a person could have a false negative if they test too early, before they start showing symptoms. Quarantining after traveling – which can be cut short with a negative test a few days after possible exposure – is the best way to ensure the virus will not spread.
“The safest thing would be to assume you’ve been exposed on the way,” Simanek said.
Once home, most students will not return to campus until late January or February, when most colleges plan to start their spring semesters.
With the virus still spreading fast, what the spring semester will look like for schools is clouded in the uncertainty. Most schools have said they will cautiously invite students back to campus, including schools that had moved all classes online after outbreaks on campus during their fall semester, such as Temple University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
UNC-Chapel Hill said it will require students to be tested before they return to campus in the spring, something the school did not do in the fall. It has also opted for a later start to the spring semester, and students will not have a spring break – two strategies many colleges are taking in the spring.
But for now it’s the holiday exodus that students, their families, universities and the country have to worry about.
Lindsay Nissenbaum, a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans, said she will be quarantining at her family’s home in New York City as she awaits the results of a Covid-19 test once she arrives in the city. While Nissenbaum would typically fly back to New York, she is opting to drive nearly 1,300 miles instead. If she tests negative, she will join her family in their second home in upstate New York where they will celebrate the holiday.
“I don’t want to bring it home. Nobody in my family is immunocompromised or anything, but I don’t want to be the person who brings it home to my family. It’s kind of scary,” Nissenbaum said. “Luckily, we have two houses so I can stay in the city and then drive up, but not everyone can do that.”
Other students are less worried about their travels home.
Luke Carmosino, a junior at University of Wisconsin–Madison, is flying home to Irvington, New York, for Thanksgiving. Carmosino tested positive for the virus in September and said he has little concerns about re-contracting the virus. He plans to follow the protocols New York state has set up for incoming travelers, which entails two tests – one before arrival and one four days after – along with a mandatory quarantine period. If a person has a negative test taken after their fourth day of quarantine, they can exit quarantine.
“If I follow all the precautions that we know of, trying to prevent myself from carrying [Covid] at least, then we’re not too worried about it,” Carmosino said. “I’m super aware, I’ve had it, I’ve seen it go through a college population, but what are we going to do? There’s no use in freaking out about it if you just do what you can.”