College Students (And Covid-19) Will Travel Home For Thanksgiving

In keeping with nationwide standardized protocols for Covid-19 testing and safety, when it comes to college campuses, there are none. Two weeks from now, millions of college students will head home for Thanksgiving break. Some will fly, some will drive, and some will take other forms of transportation such as buses and trains. Some are planning on staying at home until early 2021, and some will plan on heading back to campus with millions of others, at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend. While flights have been remarkably empty over recent weeks, in small part due to October/November being off-season for tourism, but in large part due to the pandemic, this may change as Thanksgiving approaches. And while some schools, especially smaller colleges and those in more rural locations, have developed meticulous and tightly-controlled Covid-19 testing, tracing, and isolation protocols, others have taken a much more hands-off approach.

Schools such as Pennsylvania State University have created voluntary “Departure Testing” plans, to ensure that most, if not all, students have completed Covid-19 testing prior to heading home, and they will offer on-campus isolation sites for those students who test positive. Boston University has asked on-campus students to stay put, and highly discourage students to travel home. To avoid an influx of Covid-19 cases coming to campus after the Thanksgiving Break, the University of Arizona will not only offer testing to on-campus students, but they will also revert any currently held in-person classes to remote for the remainder of the Fall semester. If you’re getting the sense that if you’ve seen one college protocol, you haven’t seen ‘em all, you’re right. There are over 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and no two have the same protocol. We need to brace ourselves for a steeper spike in cases in the coming weeks, as a large chunk of the millions of students will mobilize all at once.

Many colleges that are planning on continuing in-person classes after the Thanksgiving break are urging students to stay on campus, have small, physically distanced events with friends, “visit” with family virtually, and well, just hang in there during this challenging time. Many are recommending staying at home if they do, indeed head home. And many are having kids come back to campus.

The American College Health Association has provided the following recommendations, if students do, indeed, decide to travel home:

“The most cautious approach upon arrival home is to quarantine for the first 14 days after arrival. This is especially important if there are vulnerable, higher risk individuals living in the home and/or there is high prevalence on the campus or in the local community surrounding the campus prior to leaving for home.

  • Quarantining in the home includes eating meals in a private space or outdoors with family at least 6 ft apart.
  • Use separate serving ware, utensils, glasses, and plates.
  • Use a separate bathroom from other family members. If not possible, disinfect the bathroom after each use.
  • Avoid physical contact including hugging, kissing, and shaking hands.
  • Wear a mask and maintain a distance of at least 6 ft when in the presence of others.
  • Restrict movement within and outside the home.
  • •If quarantine is not possible, stay physically distant from family household members, wear a face covering, and avoid close contact, including hugging and shaking hands, for the first 14 days home.
  • •Consider placing HEPA filter units in the home and opening windows to increase air circulation.”

Travel in and of itself, especially air travel, may not be as notably high-risk as we had thought when it comes to Covid-19 exposure and infection. As I discuss in a prior Forbes piece, all of the variables that go along with moving about the country (contact with people at airports, taxis or ride shares, meals along the way, and of course the family members and/or friends they’ll be seeing), helps spread coronavirus during a time when we are at our highest daily case count in nearly every state in the country.

In the Spring of 2020, in the earliest days of the pandemic in the U.S., college students traveling either to vacation destinations or to their homes over Spring Break fueled the rapid-fire transmission of coronavirus infections throughout all parts of the country, as well as south of us in Mexico and the Caribbean. Now that over 100,000 individuals in this country are testing positive for Covid-19 on a daily basis, as we continue to head into the winter peak of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, the likelihood of dense travel triggering even more spikes remains high.

Dr. Jill Grimes, family physician and author of “The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide To Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness” recognizes the dilemma between medical safety and family desires for being together: “Many people are looking for the loophole to explain why their family needs to get together. This feels like when a star athlete injures their ankle but wants to play in Friday night’s game. We all WANT them to play, but the medical recommendation is to sit this one out…my blanket recommendation is to skip in-person extended family gatherings this year, so everyone has a better chance to be around for them next year.”

If college students are headed home and are unable to get tested for Covid-19, Grimes recommends: “As frustrating as it is, the safest pathway to returning home to your family without the benefit of any Covid-19 testing is to electively self-quarantine for 2 weeks after arriving home. Ideally, this means sleeping in bedroom & using a bathroom that are both separated from the rest of the family, plus eating meals physically distanced (outside or in your bedroom). Remember you can still visit with each other, but all parties should wear masks and stay the requisite six feet apart, preferably with windows open if you are indoors.”

She notes that, while most campuses that send kids home for Thanksgiving will not allow that back until Spring semester, parents may, in turn, choose to visit their child on campus. For this, Grimes states “I’d encourage you to limit the number of people traveling and plan your meals together either at an outdoor restaurant or with take-out food at your hotel, minimizing your interactions with your child’s roommates.” But her bottom, line, as many physicians and parents are thinking, but may be too guilt-ridden, sad, and frustrated to say: “Keep family gatherings limited to your immediate family and find ways (zoom, cards, letters, phone calls) to connect with your lonely or at-risk relatives.”

Thanksgiving, which is usually a time for families to travel near and far, spend some time catching up, eating too much, resuming or perhaps resolving some internal family tiffs, this remains a year to yet again put off normalcy unlike any other year in our lifetime. It will be hard for most everyone this year, including college kids. The safest way is to have Thanksgiving this year remains the same as any other day during the pandemic. Stay home, wear a mask if you’re out, and keep physical distance from those not in your household.

And as is the case for most everything that’s been canceled, postponed, or drastically altered, we need to step back, connect in new ways, be thankful for what we have, and hopeful for what we miss.

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