College students urged not to travel home for Thanksgiving amid COVID-19

By NICOLE PELLETIERE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — After several state officials saw a spike in COVID-19 cases tied to Halloween gatherings, health experts are urging students in higher education to either remain on campus or follow specific protocols in an attempt to stay safe from infection as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches.

On Sept. 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating an increase in COVID-19 infections from August to September among 18- to 22-year-olds as some colleges and universities reopened in the U.S. According to a recent New York Times survey of more than 1,700 American colleges and universities, there have been more than 252,000 cases and at least 80 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Although young adults are at lower risk of death from COVID-19 compared to older adults or those with weakened immune systems, they could still become ill and spread the virus.

“We would encourage students not to go home and the reason is that we know with travel comes risk of exposure,” Dr. Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association COVID-19 Task Force, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “So we would prefer students stay on campus and do a virtual Thanksgiving with their family.”

Concerns over the virus were heightened as video captured thousands of Notre Dame students rushing the football field after the Irish took down Clemson in double-overtime on Nov. 7. There were some students who were seen not fully masked in the footage, which was shared on Instagram. There was also no social distancing.

“We were all just going crazy, doing chants and stuff and just really having a good time down there,” Nick Camson, a sophomore at Notre Dame, told GMA.

Camson, who was one of the students to rush the field, said that the day after the Clemson game, one of his friends woke up with a fever and tested positive for COVID-19. Camson and his friend are now both in quarantine.

“I was kind of caught up in the moment,” Camson said of the game. “It was such an incredible victory. I was like, ‘Wow. This was my first time since March where I was…with that large sum of people.”

Notre Dame said in a press release that all students had to be tested in advance of the Clemson game. The testing excluded those who previously tested positive in the 90 days prior, those with accommodations to study remotely and athletes who are tested regularly.

“Compliance with surveillance testing was 98%, and those who did not show up for testing did, in fact, have their football tickets deactivated,” Notre Dame wrote on its website.

According to Notre Dame’s COVID-19 tracker, the campus has over 200 cases. The university’s president, Reverend John Jenkins, apologized in September after he was seen maskless at the White House Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Jenkins later tested positive for COVID-19.

Cases across the U.S. now top 10 million and more than 38,000 cases have been reported at colleges since October, according to The New York Times tracker.

Colleges and universities are coming up with game plans to minimize the spread of the virus if students travel home.

Colleges of the State University of New York (SUNY), for example, announced that students who use on-campus facilities in the public system must test negative before traveling home for the holidays. This means 140,000 students statewide will be required to undergo testing prior to their departure from campus for Thanksgiving break.

Tulane University in New Orleans confirmed recently to GMA that its 8,100 undergrad students are tested twice a week and some are tested daily.

“Students who test positive for or are exposed to COVID-19 prior to the Thanksgiving/Winter Recess break will be expected to quarantine or isolate within our current system,” Tulane said in its full statement. “If they are able to travel home safely, either because they live locally or can go by car, we will not prevent them from leaving. We will, however, reiterate to our students the importance of acting responsibly to protect the vulnerable people in their communities (including their own family members) prior to the end of the semester. Having said that, we cannot force students to isolate/quarantine in a specific location. But our expectation and experience throughout the semester is that students who know that they are positive, or are a close contact of someone who is positive, are eager to cooperate and do whatever is necessary to keep for infecting others, whether that means isolating/quarantining within the Tulane system or in another area safely distanced from others.”

Notre Dame is ending its semester before Thanksgiving and said students need to have a negative COVID-19 test to leave campus. Excluding those who previously tested positive in the past 90 days and those with accommodations to study remotely, all students were scheduled for exit testing starting Nov. 12.

Boston University’s guidance is if a student leaves campus, he or she should stay where they are.

“In an ongoing survey of student plans, 22% of students living on campus have indicated that they plan to travel and return to campus to complete the fall semester,” BU told GMA. “We plan to contact them to let them know that this is not a preferred plan and that absent extraordinary circumstances, they should stay at their destination.”

In order to return to campus post-Thanksgiving, BU students must follow the “stay-in-place” advisory and limit movements on campus for a period of seven days. Students must also schedule three COVID tests during this seven-day period in one of Boston University’s testing facilities. If all three tests come back with negative results, the stay-in-place advisory is lifted.

BU’s dining service will offer a special holiday menu to students who choose to remain on campus.

“I too am processing the emotions from having to alter my own traditions this year,” Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore said in a statement. “These adjustments are necessary, though heartbreaking to make, in order to affirm my commitment to the health of this community, my friends, and the people in my family. I have no doubt that my family and I will make epic use of Zoom and FaceTime to keep the spirit of our traditions this year.”

Here’s what students and families need to consider as many head home for the holidays amid COVID-19, according to Barkin:

  • Determine the safest way to travel. The student should drive themselves home or have a family member drive them.
  • If driving, reduce the number of stops on the trip and pack snacks in the car.
  • Crack the windows in the car.
  • Take a direct flight if flying.
  • Practice social distancing.
  • Wash hands regularly during travel.
  • Wear a proper face covering.
  • Use hand sanitizer and wipes. Wipe off public services you come in contact with.
  • Although it’s difficult, avoid kissing, hugging and shaking hands.
  • Have a conversation within your family on the rules you want to follow.
  • If you can’t do a strict quarantine because of the physical setup of your home, or you can’t implement that plan because of the desire to be with family, Barkin said to continue wearing face masks, try using a separate bathroom, or wipe down surfaces in rooms inside the house.
  • Be sensitive to each other’s moods — especially those with pre-existing mental health issues. “I encourage parents or family members to take note if their student is expressing feelings of anxiety or depression or if their behavior indicates a change in the way,” Barkin said.

If you’re feeling stressed during the pandemic, Barkin said students should reach out to their primary care provider, mental health or on-campus counseling center.

Mental health organizations have increased online offerings and, in some cases, tailored those offerings to the current pandemic.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has free COVID-19-specific resources on its website. Major mental health groups and insurance companies have partnered together on the COVID-19 Mental Health Resource Hub, which offers videos and resources for both individuals and providers.

Mental health advocacy groups have also partnered on the website Covidmentalhealthsupport.org, where you can simply select your state and get results for free mental health help in your area.

If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.

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