Dive Brief:

  • Colleges across the country are preparing to send students home for Thanksgiving break, but their plans are inconsistent, public health experts say.
  • Many colleges will end in-person instruction before the holiday, though others intend to welcome students back to finish the term and are beginning to set expectations around coming and going from campus.
  • Public health experts advise quarantines, coronavirus tests and flu shots for students headed home.

Dive Insight:

The American College Health Association offered several recommendations for institutions and students in guidance posted late last month — including that colleges hosting in-person classes after Thanksgiving encourage students to remain on campus for the holiday.

“One important strategy for these campuses to consider is to actively discourage students from traveling over the Thanksgiving break and encourage students to have a virtual Thanksgiving event with family members instead,” it states. 

Boston University is among the colleges heeding that advice. In a mid-October message to students, school officials encouraged them to “stick around.” Students who leave campus for Thanksgiving will be asked to finish the term remotely. Students at nearby Tufts University who leave campus for the break will generally have to do the same.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re going off-campus to go 300 miles home or … into town to have Thanksgiving with a family friend,” said A. David Paltiel, a public health professor at Yale University. “It’s not the distance you’re going, it’s the fact that you’re exposing yourself and everybody back on campus to a risk.”

Paltiel advises that colleges sending students home follow the best practices for bringing them to campus this fall, including a return to quarantine and coronavirus testing. Paltiel, along with ACHA, also recommends students get a flu shot.

Testing all students for the virus, not just those with symptoms, has been encouraged ahead of the break. ACHA instructs colleges to be ready to provide housing and services to students who are sick or have been exposed to the virus and thus need to delay their trip home. 

“It’s really been no mystery that we were likely to see a surge in infections right around this time of year anyway, and that COVID would become more difficult to control as the fall and winter came on,” said Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s school of public health. 

Keeping students home after Thanksgiving is a “pretty sensible strategy,” and one that some schools have also implemented, Kissler said.

Paul Niekamp, an economics professor at Ball State University who studied coronavirus spread from students’ spring break travel, recommended in an email that colleges advise students to self-isolate or stay away from high-risk family members once they are home. He echoed Kissler in suggesting that ending in-person instruction at Thanksgiving could help limit virus spread.

Still, colleges’ protocols around coronavirus safety vary. And it’s hard to measure whether students are following them, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. More discussion of best practices among colleges for sending students home for break could help, she noted. 

Sending students home also will require additional testing and containment efforts upon their return. “After the holiday break you’re going to bring all these students back again and you won’t have been able to contain much of the exposure,” she said.

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