How can my college student come home safely for Thanksgiving?
By Tara Parker-Pope and Julie Halpert
College students and their parents face a daunting challenge this Thanksgiving: How can students go home for the holiday without bringing the coronavirus with them?
The logistics of Thanksgiving break in the midst of a pandemic are tough. College campuses have emerged as hotbeds of infection in some parts of the country, accounting for more than 252,000 infections and at least 80 deaths. While students are at relatively low risk for complications related to COVID-19, the worry is that an asymptomatic student could unknowingly spread the virus home to vulnerable family members.
While some students plan to skip the family gathering, dorms are closing on some campuses, and many students are required to complete finals at home. Others will return to classes after the short break, making prolonged quarantines impossible.
Some colleges have been vigilant about controlling the virus through frequent testing, contact tracing and restrictions on students that have kept cases low. But other campuses have less rigorous testing programs or large numbers of students who aren’t taking the virus seriously.
“When college students come home, they’ve really got to be careful,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. “It depends on where they’re coming from and what the level of infection is in the community they are in.”
To start, each family needs to decide how much risk a college student with an undiagnosed case of COVID-19 would pose to other family members.
“There is no right or wrong answer,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s about the relative risk you’re willing to take. It depends on the contacts in the home you’re going to. If you have an immunosuppressed person or a grandfather who’s 92 years old, the risk is great. If you’re going into a home with a healthy 45-year-old father and mother and a brother and sister in their teens, the chances of there being a problem are much less.”
Here are answers to some common questions parents and students are asking about staying safe during Thanksgiving.
What can students do to lower risk before returning home?
Parents should have a heart-to-heart with their student about the risks of COVID-19 to family members. Don’t mince words. Ask students to restrict contacts for at least a week before coming home.
“You approach it with empathy, concern and mutual respect,” said Dr. Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “You can say: ‘You’re coming home, and I want to ask you to commit to five or seven days before you come home. Please don’t go to a bar. Please don’t go to a house party.’ ”
Ian Zohn, 20, a junior at St. John’s University in Minnesota, has decided not to go home to his family in Warren, New Jersey, for Thanksgiving. He has six roommates who he says are careful, but in some classes, students aren’t wearing masks properly.
“It’s kind of a bummer that I don’t feel like it’s safe” to go home, Zohn said. “A lot of people are not willing to follow the rules. I’m not putting any of my family members or friends at risk.”
Should students get tested before leaving campus?
Yes. Many colleges are offering coronavirus tests to students before they leave campus. At Indiana University, for instance, all students can receive a free test the week before they leave for the holiday break.
Testing isn’t a guarantee that a student isn’t infected, because the tests are not always accurate, but a negative result makes it less likely. It’s also possible that a student who tests negative before leaving campus could pick up the virus on the way home. Despite those concerns, Fauci advises students to get tested before returning home.
How should students travel from campus to home?
If parents drive to pick up a student, or the student rides home with friends, all passengers in the car should wear a mask and ride with windows open if possible. If it’s too cold outside, open the windows at regular intervals to let out contaminated air. Make sure the heater or air conditioner is using outside air rather than recirculated air.
Students traveling on buses, trains or planes should keep their masks on as consistently as possible, wash hands frequently, sit near empty seats when possible and avoid crowded areas.
Should students isolate or wear masks when they get home?
While it’s optimal to quarantine for two weeks after arriving home, even a few days of isolation, avoiding close contact with family members and mask-wearing inside the home lowers the risk that a student will unknowingly transmit the virus to others. If possible, a swab test after the student arrives home offers additional reassurance.
“After they’ve traveled, don’t hug and have them take a shower,” Bitton said. “Try to find a place in the house where they won’t be in superclose proximity, at least for the first couple of days. If there’s a person who has high-risk health issues in the house, maybe everyone wears a mask for the first couple days.”
If possible, designate a bathroom to be used only by the student to further reduce household risk. Open windows throughout the home to improve ventilation.
Sofia Pelaez, 21, left her Texas A&M University, San Antonio, campus three weeks earlier than planned to travel to her home in League City, Texas, because cases in her dorm were on the rise, but she worried about putting her mother, who has high blood pressure, at risk. “I feel like if something would happen to her, it would be my fault,” Pelaez said.
She minimized contacts at school and was tested two days before leaving campus. On the long bus ride home she wore a mask and wiped down her seat. (The bus company kept the seat near her empty.) She even changed her clothes at the bus station after she arrived. She was tested again in League City and wore a mask at home until she got the negative results.
We have students coming home from different colleges. Can they quarantine together?
If possible, siblings returning home from different campuses should isolate in separate rooms rather than staying together, particularly if they haven’t been tested. You don’t want one infected student exposing a sibling who didn’t bring the virus home.
Cathy Neumann, who lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, has three adult children attending three different schools — Iowa State University, Western Michigan University and Illinois State University. All three students will be tested before returning home, but she knows they may not have the results before they enter the house.
“If one of the kids is positive, we do have the option of them sleeping in our camper on the driveway, or we have enough hotel points to book a hotel room for them,” she said. “We haven’t really talked about that though. The boys also live in a house off campus, so if they’re positive we could also say, ‘Nope, you can’t come home.’ But I will seriously cry for days if that happens.”
What can I do to lower risks during the holiday meal?
The safest plan is to move your celebration outdoors. If that’s not possible, open windows and turn on exhaust fans. Give college students their own serving spoons and have them keep some distance during the meal.
A computer simulation from Japanese researchers suggests that the seating arrangement at the table can affect risk: It’s best to avoid sitting next to or directly across from a person who might be infected. The person seated at a diagonal from the infected person is at lowest risk. When you’re not eating or drinking, wear a mask.
What should I do if all these precautions aren’t possible?
Every small precaution you take lowers risk. Just do your best.
“Sometimes our public health recommendations don’t reflect the complex reality of people’s lives,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease public health researcher at Harvard Medical School. “That’s not a reason to not try to mitigate risk in small ways. Some combination of testing before travel, mitigating risk during travel and then trying to keep some distance, wearing masks at least a few days after arriving — those can all add up to some amount of risk reduction.”