Colleges, Families Face Thanksgiving Break Challenges

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For many college students who have lived on campus so far this year, Thanksgiving break will be their first time back home since the start of fall semester. Getting home will involve using planes, trains, buses and private cars, where safety protocols might not be up to pandemic standards.

Compounding the risk factor includes socialization once students reach home. Some colleges, such as the University of Notre Dame, are requiring all students departing campus to have a COVID-19 test or risk not being able to register for the new semester:

Under the revised exit testing plans announced Sunday, all students intending to leave the South Bend area for Thanksgiving must take a COVID-19 test and cannot depart until the results are back, Jenkins' note says. Those who leave without testing will not be able to register for classes next semester, receive a transcript or return for spring classes ...

This is prudent, but the majority of colleges and universities are not being this strict. For example, not many in Texas higher education are applying extra measures for departing students:

few of those [Texas] universities — some of which have been identified as coronavirus hot spots — have explicitly encouraged students to quarantine for 14 days before Thanksgiving or required exit testing, despite staggering rises in case counts across the state and country ...

Testing May Not Be the Top Solution

One of the main dangers of COVID-19 is its asymptomatic residency in many who have contracted it. College students tend to be more lax about following strict behavioral guidelines. "If I don't feel bad, then I don't have the virus," would be a reasonable attitude of many collegians. This kind of attitude can lead to apathy and the dreaded effect of superspreading, especially when students are home on break and rallying with friends whom they haven't seen since late summer.

As if the situation wasn't complicated enough, there has been some controversy about the Becton Dickinson Veritor Plus system, a 15-minute rapid antigen test, which is used on many college campuses. This issue was raised to global attention by Elon Musk, when he said that he tested both positive and negative twice for COVID-19 on the same day using the BD fast-result test. Outcomes such as this don't inspire confidence in certain tests.

I've written recently about colleges and universities changing their plans for post-Thanksgiving classes. Some are urging students to stay on campus instead of going home for the holiday, but I don't think this is going to go over too well. Take Boston University, for example:

As coronavirus cases around the country continue to rise, some colleges and universities are urging students to remain on campus instead of visiting family for Thanksgiving, while others are asking that those who do travel home consider finishing the semester remotely.

Boston University is one of many schools that are encouraging students to skip family gatherings this year and remain in town.

"Stay here or stay where you are now rather than going away — even around the corner — for the break. It's the wise choice," the school's Dean of Students office said in a memo to the campus community.

The school is planning to host events so that students who remain on campus can celebrate the holiday in a safe way, according to BU Today, the university's news website

The university will hold in-person classes for the remainder of the semester, but it asked those who go home during the break to stay home and finish the semester virtually.

Some Cities Are Shutting Down

Staying on campus to be safe is one thing, but going home and being locked down is something else, such as Philadelphia announced this week:

Philadelphia is banning indoor gatherings of any size, public or private, as the city battles a resurgence of the coronavirus, officials announced Monday, warning that hospitals will become overrun by the end of the year without dramatic action

The city also plans to prohibit indoor dining at restaurants, shutter casinos, gyms, museums and libraries, pause in-person instruction at colleges and high schools, and reduce occupancy at stores and religious institutions … The new restrictions take effect Friday [November 20] and extend at least through the end of the year

While some colleges have taken the time to create detailed plans to meet pre-departure testing requirements for students, others have not planned far enough ahead, as Inside Higher Ed's Emma Whitford notes:

In a random sample of 50 institutions taken about two weeks ago, only one had a pre-Thanksgiving plan for sending students home, Chris Marsicano, assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, said during a recent American Enterprise Institute panel. He urged colleges to get a plan together as soon as possible

Because COVID-19 is so highly infectious, just one infected person can become a superspreader, as infamously happened in March:

When 61 people met for a choir practice in a church in Mount Vernon, Washington, on 10 March, everything seemed normal. For 2.5 hours the chorists sang, snacked on cookies and oranges, and sang some more. But one of them had been suffering for 3 days from what felt like a cold—and turned out to be COVID-19. In the following weeks, 53 choir members got sick, three were hospitalized, and two died, according to a 12 May report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that meticulously reconstructed the tragedy ...

Think about that for a bit. This goes back to the asymptomatic aspect of the coronavirus, which I mentioned. From all those colleges and universities that have been holding in-person classes and maintain a residential campus, how many of their students are infected, asymptomatic, remain untested and will be traveling home for Thanksgiving? Unfortunately, even if it's just one student, a Mount Vernon choir epidemic — where someone was a clearly symptomatic — could possibly transpire.

Consider These Options for a Safe Thanksgiving

I hate to be a pessimist, but I would bet that there's more — many more — than one infected, unknowing college student who is or will be on his or her way home for Thanksgiving break. If so, this portends eventual bad outcomes nationally for the year-end holiday season. Even with all the encouraging news about vaccines, deployment won't be fast enough to help those who will contract COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

What should students do, then, to have a safe holiday break? Here are three pertinent comments gathered by NPR.

Get Tested, But Don't Rely Exclusively on Test Results

But remember a test is just a snapshot of the day it is taken, says Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. "One negative test does not mean that you are home free." And even if a test is negative, it's not a guarantee the person taking it is not infected.

She recommends students take another test when they get home, and in the meantime, they should stay masked up after they return home and keep 6 feet away from other family members ...

Limit Your Social Activities Starting Now

For colleges that don't have resources for exit testing, many are encouraging students to essentially lock down before heading out for Thanksgiving ...

So the best defense for students — and the family planning to welcome them in — is to limit activities to the essentials ...

Wear Masks, Keep Your Distance and Rethink That Turkey Dinner

Students should stay masked up after they return home, says epidemiologist Guzman-Cottrill.

"The only time they should be removing their mask should be when they are eating and eating in a separate room, I think, is the safest decision, or eating outdoors," she says.

And while it may seem like this takes the joy out of the holiday, with the virus surging across the country, the extra precautions are worth taking, our experts say ...

For college students (and even their parents), these seemingly extreme cautions may appear to be over the top. We should, however, keep in mind the advice of Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: "The last thing we want is big family gatherings that end up being somebody's last Thanksgiving."