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Should College Kids Go Home for the Holidays This Year?

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Key Takeaways

  • Many families are facing a dilemma about whether college students should come home for Thanksgiving.
  • The CDC is urging people not to travel for Thanksgiving after the U.S. had more than 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week.
  • Avoiding risky gatherings, getting tested for COVID-19, wearing a mask, and taking other precautions can help students reduce (but not eliminate) the risk transmitting the virus.

Coming home for the holidays is usually a standard part of the college experience. You wrap up midterms, stuff a semester’s worth of dirty laundry in a backpack, and make your way back to your hometown to feast on home-cooked meals and reunite with your high school pals.

But with COVID-19 surging throughout the country, the annual migration of millions of college students home for Thanksgiving could lead to a devastating spike in new cases of the disease, threatening the health of their loved ones and putting hospitals at risk of being overwhelmed. 

Should college students skip Thanksgiving with the family and hunker down on campus this year? 

Here’s what the experts say about the pros and cons of students coming home and ways families can reduce their risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus this holiday season. 

COVID-19 and College Campuses

The traditional college lifestyle of living in close quarters and gathering in groups puts campuses at risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. A New York Times survey of more than 1,700 colleges and universities across the country uncovered more than 321,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 80 deaths related to the disease. 

With that being said, the risk of a college student bringing COVID-19 home with them may depend on exactly which school they attend, said Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, MBA, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

“With regard to university campuses, it’s difficult to classify such a broad and varied group of organizations and individuals, as well as sets of precautions,” explained Dr. Gonsenhauser, who has been involved in developing COVID-19 safety protocols for Ohio State University students.

Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, MBA

We have seen examples where the coronavirus was poorly controlled on university campuses, leading to large outbreaks and considerable impact, and we’ve also seen colleges and universities do exceptional jobs mitigating the spread on campus.

— Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, MBA

“We have seen examples where the coronavirus was poorly controlled on university campuses, leading to large outbreaks and considerable impact, and we’ve also seen colleges and universities do exceptional jobs mitigating the spread on campus,” he added.

The universities that deployed strong strategies for testing, contact tracing, and isolating students who may have been exposed, as well as emphasizing responsible behavior on campus, have significantly reduced the risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout the fall semester. 

Some have already implemented preventative policies for the holiday season, such as urging students to get tested before leaving campus, encouraging students to stay at the dorm for Thanksgiving or moving to all-remote learning from now until the spring semester, to help protect students and communities. 

These policies vary from school to school, though. Understanding the measures being taken on your child’s campus can help you assess the risk of bringing them home for Thanksgiving, along with the measures they must take when they return to school.

The Travel Dilemma

The decision whether to travel home for the holidays has been an ongoing dilemma, especially for people who haven’t seen their families in months.

On Nov. 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its Thanksgiving guidelines urging Americans to cancel or postpone travel plans, pointing to the rapid rise in infections over the previous week.

However, travel is still a personal decision and there can be some benefits for college students to go home for Thanksgiving—if they can follow COVID-19 prevention protocols closely to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

“One of the benefits is the wellness of the student, being close to family during a very challenging time,” said Philip Zachariah, MD, MS, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Sending students home from campus may also help reduce outbreaks among 20-somethings, who accounted for more than 20% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases last summer.

“Given that we’ve seen some campuses have great challenges controlling the spread of COVID-19, de-densifying college campuses could be a really helpful and effective way of reducing incidents of COVID in the 18-to-24-year-old population,” said Dr. Gonsenhauser. 

(Interviews with Dr. Gonsenhauser and Dr. Zachariah were conducted before the CDC released its guidance encouraging Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving.)

The risk of college students spreading COVID-19 to their families and hometown communities—or catching it on their holiday travels—could still outweigh the potential benefits of going home, though.

“When college students go home, you’re linking two areas through a vector—the student—which might have very different rates of COVID-19 transmission,” said Dr. Zachariah. “In a pandemic, that’s not a very good idea. You could be incubating the virus or actively infected with COVID-19 and expose someone along the way, or even within your own family.”

Reducing the Risk When College Students Go Home

If a college student is leaving campus for the holidays, there are some ways to make the homecoming less risky.

Both students and the families they’re going to see should isolate themselves as much as possible in the two weeks leading up to the visit, said Dr. Zachariah.

“Minimize the number of contacts you’re having with people outside the circle you’re going to have at Thanksgiving. Don’t go to any parties or big indoor dining events before the visit,” he said.

Students should also plan to get a COVID-19 test ahead of their arrival. The test has limitations, in that it only gives you a snapshot view of whether you had COVID-19 at a given point in time, but a positive result would be an indication that you should isolate in place. 

As for getting home, traveling students should be diligent about wearing their masks, washing their hands, and social distancing on their journeys.

How careful everyone has been leading up to the college student coming home will make an impact on next steps.

“If the student was extra diligent and cautious, they may mitigate the need to quarantine when they get to their destination,” said Dr. Gonsenhauser, adding that local and state health authorities may have specific quarantine and testing rules that people coming from out of town must follow.

Many people might feel understandably strange wearing masks at home. Dr. Gonsenhauser said masking is a smart idea if the college student will be around a high-risk relative, such as a grandparent or someone with an underlying condition, but there otherwise isn’t “a clear need for masking at home,” assuming they’ve been very careful. 

Students who do go home for Thanksgiving should plan to stay put through the December holidays, wrapping up coursework remotely if possible. This is already a requirement at some universities. 

And while home, they should plan to forgo the usual parties with high school friends, who may be coming from other communities with high COVID-19 case rates, doctors say. 

Philip Zachariah, MD, MS

It’s out of the question to meet with high school friends. You’re going home, you’re going to see your family, and I think protecting them is your biggest goal.

— Philip Zachariah, MD, MS

“It’s out of the question to meet with high school friends. You’re going home, you’re going to see your family, and I think protecting them is your biggest goal,” said Dr. Zachariah. “It’s very clear from a lot of data we have now that a substantial portion of people have no clue they have COVID-19 and are walking around with it, especially groups of young people congregating.”

Taking precautions can help make it less risky for college students to visit their families for the holidays. But keep in mind that these are just ways to reduce the risk—not eliminate it entirely.

“None of these approaches, with the exception of getting together virtually, are foolproof,” said Dr. Gonsenhauser. “But this is a time to move forward carefully, not fearfully. If we’re careful, cautious, and vigilant, we can take simple actions that can dramatically reduce our risks.”

What This Means For You

College students and their families have tough choices to make in regard to holiday visits. On the one hand, reuniting with loved ones during a challenging time can have emotional benefits for everyone. But COVID-19 is surging, and the CDC has recently issued new guidance urging people to postpone their Thanksgiving travel plans. 

Families need to weigh out their individual risks to determine whether it’s a good idea for college students to come home this holiday season. If students are planning to leave campus, they can reduce their risk of spreading the coronavirus by isolating for two weeks, getting tested, and wearing a mask and social distancing on their trip, among other measures. They should also plan to follow guidelines from local and state health authorities, as well as their universities.

While many students will be tempted to reunite with old friends at home, that can be very risky for their families, and doctors encourage them to opt for a virtual visit, instead.

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Article Sources
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  1. CDC. Celebrating Thanksgiving. Updated Nov. 19, 2020.

  2. The New York Times. Tracking the Coronavirus at U.S. Colleges and Universities. Updated Nov. 5, 2020.

  3. Boehmer TK, DeVies J, Caruso E, et al. Changing Age Distribution of the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, May–August 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1404–1409. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6939e1