Col­leges plead with stu­dents to get tested

Going home for hol­i­day could spread COVID-19

USA TODAY US Edition - - NA­TION’S HEALTH - Chris Quin­tana

Af­ter a se­mes­ter bat­tling the coro­n­avirus, of­ten un­suc­cess­fully, college lead­ers have one fi­nal plea for stu­dents head­ing home for Thanks­giv­ing: Get tested, please.

What’s un­clear: whether the plea will work.

High-pro­file fail­ures al­ready have marred dozens of col­leges’ at­tempts to hold the fall se­mes­ter of college in per­son. Some in­sti­tu­tions brought stu­dents back to cam­puses, only to pivot to dig­i­tal in­struc­tion a week into classes, as un­sanc­tioned par­ties drove up COVID-19 cases. By mid-Septem­ber, coun­ties with a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of college stu­dents were fu­el­ing the na­tion’s worst coro­n­avirus out­breaks. As those out­breaks con­tin­ued, state and local gov­ern­ments cracked down, or­der­ing stu­dents quar­an­tined to cam­pus, like at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in Ann Ar­bor, or ask­ing col­leges to send stu­dents home, like at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son.

Now, with the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day a week away and cases hit­ting record highs na­tion­ally, those college stu­dents are pre­par­ing to fan out across the coun­try, tak­ing their pos­si­ble coro­n­avirus in­fec­tions – symp­to­matic or not – into their loved ones’ homes.

Col­leges are scram­bling to pre­vent the re­sult­ing spread of the virus. Some in­sti­tu­tions have urged or even re­quired stu­dents to quar­an­tine or re­ceive a neg­a­tive coro­n­avirus test be­fore trav­el­ing home. With­out those pre­cau­tions, college lead­ers say, stu­dents should con­sider ab­stain­ing from their hol­i­day plans and in­stead opt for a cel­e­bra­tion closer to cam­pus.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion on Thurs­day chimed in, call­ing out college stu­dents in its ad­vi­sory against trav­el­ing during the Thanks­giv­ing pe­riod.

The safest way to cel­e­brate the hol­i­day is “at home with the peo­ple you live with,” the CDC said. “Peo­ple who do not cur­rently live in your housing unit, such as college stu­dents who are re­turn­ing home from school for the hol­i­days, should be con­sid­ered part of dif­fer­ent house­holds.” The agency stopped short of saying college stu­dents shouldn’t cel­e­brate with their fam­i­lies, but did say events that in­cluded them would be riskier.

Con­cerned about ad­di­tional virus spread, many col­leges are telling stu­dents who do leave for Thanks­giv­ing not to come back to cam­pus, but to fin­ish the se­mes­ter on­line. At the same time, many in­sti­tu­tions are cut­ting their planned se­mes­ter even shorter as

“We want to make sure that we are not hav­ing virus travel from our cam­puses back into peo­ple’s homes as they go home.” Mandy Co­hen North Carolina’s sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices

cases con­tinue to surge. Syra­cuse Univer­sity in New York an­nounced last Wed­nes­day that its in-per­son in­struc­tion would fin­ish by the next day. Al­bion College in Michi­gan said last Thurs­day that most of its stu­dents would have to leave cam­pus by that Satur­day.

Ul­ti­mately, the de­ci­sion, and any re­sult­ing COVID-19 spread, will be in the hands of stu­dents – many of whom are try­ing to do the right thing, but face sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles.

Ro­hin Balkundi, a ju­nior at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, was plan­ning to get tested Thurs­day and drive home to Dal­las on Satur­day. The univer­sity of­fers test­ing once a week to stu­dents, and he is wor­ried he could get in­fected be­tween his test and his trip home. As it was, he had to sched­ule his test a week in ad­vance and plans to spend about 45 min­utes get­ting it. It’s a has­sle, but a nec­es­sary one, he said.

Some of Balkundi’s friends are stay­ing put, but Balkundi said he’s tak­ing a cal­cu­lated risk, since he’s able to get tested and drive home in his own ve­hi­cle. If he tests pos­i­tive, he plans to can­cel his trip to iso­late for at least two weeks. His main con­cern: that he does end up hav­ing the virus and gives it to his par­ents.

“It starts the whole chain all over again,” he said. “And that’s something the state as a whole has been strug­gling with and the coun­try is strug­gling with.”

‘On the verge of be­ing mean’

Ab­sent much guid­ance from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and in most cases their states, col­leges have largely charted their own paths in han­dling the pandemic. The same ap­proach is true with their Thanks­giv­ing or hol­i­day plans – and many in­sti­tu­tions have only re­cently re­leased those de­tails, said Chris Mar­si­cano, the head of David­son College’s College Cri­sis Ini­tia­tive, a group track­ing re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus.

Many uni­ver­si­ties have stopped short of re­quir­ing that their stu­dents re­ceive test­ing be­fore head­ing home and in­stead are hop­ing stu­dents will be per­suaded by their pleas.

The Univer­sity of Ten­nessee in Knoxville has asked stu­dents to get tested, re­ceive a flu shot and plan to take their study ma­te­ri­als home with them. The Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia in Athens in­creased its ca­pac­ity to screen peo­ple and is push­ing stu­dents to get tested by Fri­day, be­fore re­turn­ing home. The univer­sity is try­ing to sweeten the deal with a Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia face mask, as well as dis­counts for cam­pus shops and the book­store for stu­dents who get a test.

Bos­ton Univer­sity al­ready re­quires twice-a-week test­ing for most un­der­grad­u­ates, but ad­min­is­tra­tors are en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to take at least one ad­di­tional test if they re­turn or stay on cam­pus af­ter Thanks­giv­ing break.

Still, the univer­sity’s rec­om­men­da­tion is that stu­dents ei­ther stay in Bos­ton for the hol­i­day or go home and not come back. If stu­dents do travel and re­turn to cam­pus, of­fi­cials say they should plan to quar­an­tine in their as­signed res­i­dence for two weeks, which would co­in­cide roughly with the end of the se­mes­ter.

The idea, said Ken­neth El­more, dean of stu­dents and as­so­ci­ate provost, is to dis­cour­age stu­dents from re­turn­ing to cam­pus. But he said the univer­sity can’t force stu­dents to stay in place for their quar­an­tine, nor can they bar them from cam­pus. In­stead, the college is push­ing stu­dents to think of the greater good.

“We’ve been push­ing that very hard, very strongly, to the point where we’re just on the verge of be­ing mean about it,” El­more said.

The univer­sity is re­ly­ing on peers to re­port vi­o­la­tions. On-cam­pus stu­dents who don’t ad­here to the quar­an­tine or­der af­ter Thanks­giv­ing will lose ac­cess to their res­i­dence, cam­pus din­ing halls, Wi-Fi and on­line cour­ses.

But even the strong­est warn­ings may fall flat for some stu­dents. Af­ter all, many uni­ver­si­ties urged or re­quired stu­dents to re­frain from par­ties during the se­mes­ter, with lim­ited suc­cess.

So some uni­ver­si­ties are threat­en­ing puni­tive ac­tion if stu­dents fail to com­ply. The Univer­sity of Notre Dame in In­di­ana, which re­cently made head­lines when its stu­dents rushed a football field af­ter a sur­prise win over Clem­son Univer­sity, is re­quir­ing stu­dents to re­ceive a neg­a­tive COVID-19 test be­fore leav­ing the South Bend area. Fail­ure to do so could mean they’re un­able to regis­ter for classes or re­ceive their tran­scripts.

The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem will al­low stu­dents to travel and re­turn to cam­pus, but only if they test neg­a­tive be­fore leav­ing and then test neg­a­tive again twice more upon their re­turn. Many of the cam­puses within the sys­tem have moved to on­line in­struc­tion.

“If these stan­dards can­not be met, stu­dents should not be al­lowed to re­turn into any class­room or con­gre­gated set­ting fol­low­ing the Thanks­giv­ing break,” wrote Tommy Thomp­son, the in­terim pres­i­dent of the UW Sys­tem, in a let­ter to the chan­cel­lors of the sys­tem. Thomp­son did not say how the univer­sity would en­force this guide­line.

The State Univer­sity of New York, which has 64 cam­puses across the state, has also started re­quir­ing stu­dents to test neg­a­tive be­fore re­turn­ing home. The col­leges are mov­ing to virtual in­struc­tion af­ter the hol­i­day, but the chan­cel­lor of the sys­tem, Jim Mala­tras, said in­sti­tu­tions will re­main open for stu­dents who must quar­an­tine or iso­late if they test pos­i­tive for the virus. Those who fail to com­ply may face dis­ci­plinary ac­tion such as sus­pen­sion.

But the col­leges haven’t had to use many dis­ci­plinary ac­tions this se­mes­ter, Mala­tras said. Stu­dents have been pretty care­ful af­ter see­ing cam­puses such as SUNY Oneonta end in-per­son classes af­ter a virus surge.

“March re­ally, re­ally stunk for them,” Mala­tras said. “They don’t like be­ing home. So they’ve ac­tu­ally been push­ing us harder to do more.”

SUNY didn’t re­quire that all stu­dents get a neg­a­tive COVID-19 test be­fore ar­riv­ing on cam­pus for the fall se­mes­ter, but they will be re­quired to do so for the spring se­mes­ter, plus com­plete a week­long “pre­cau­tion­ary quar­an­tine.” SUNY has also pushed back the start of its spring se­mes­ter to Feb. 1.

With new COVID-19 cases ex­plod­ing, some states and local gov­ern­ments are step­ping in to dic­tate col­leges’ Thanks­giv­ing and winter break plans. Michi­gan re­cently man­dated that in-per­son in­struc­tion for pri­vate and pub­lic col­leges stop for at least three weeks, start­ing Wed­nes­day — ef­fec­tively end­ing in-per­son in­struc­tion be­fore this se­mes­ter’s fi­nals. Philadel­phia also re­quired that high schools and uni­ver­si­ties cease in-per­son in­struc­tion through at least the end of the year, though many of the in­sti­tu­tions in the city were al­ready of­fer­ing many of their classes on­line.

North Carolina hasn’t shut down in­per­son in­struc­tion. In­stead, it’s of­fer­ing nearly 75,000 tests to pri­vate and pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in the state. The state rec­om­mended mass test­ing be­fore stu­dents leave for the hol­i­days, though it isn’t manda­tory, said Mandy Co­hen, North Carolina’s sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

“We want to make sure that we are not hav­ing virus travel from our cam­puses back into peo­ple’s homes as they go home,” Co­hen said.

“If these stan­dards can­not be met, stu­dents should not be al­lowed to re­turn into any class­room or con­gre­gated set­ting fol­low­ing the Thanks­giv­ing break.” Tommy Thomp­son in­terim pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem

If all else fails, quar­an­tine

Still, some col­leges have of­fered lit­tle or no guid­ance for stu­dents trav­el­ing home. In that case, Gerri Tay­lor, who cochairs the Amer­i­can College Health As­so­ci­a­tion’s task force on coro­n­avirus, en­cour­aged stu­dents to start quar­an­tin­ing now and seek out a test. They should also test again about five to 10 days af­ter they get home.

Stu­dents should also quar­an­tine when they get home, though Tay­lor said they may be able to spread the 14 days be­tween their time on cam­pus and at home if they’re avoid­ing social in­ter­ac­tions and trav­el­ing via a pri­vate ve­hi­cle. Stu­dents who have in-per­son classes the fol­low­ing week should strongly con­sider stay­ing in place.

Tay­lor cau­tioned against an over­re­liance on test re­sults. Test­ing, she said, is rep­re­sen­ta­tive only of one mo­ment in time. Those who test neg­a­tive should still con­tinue wear­ing masks, social dis­tanc­ing and fol­low­ing other safety guide­lines if they want to avoid the po­ten­tial of spread­ing the virus to fam­ily mem­bers, es­pe­cially those with com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems. Of course, this all as­sumes that stu­dents who test pos­i­tive are will­ing to can­cel their travel plans. Thanks­giv­ing is of­ten a re­prieve for men­tally fried stu­dents on the cusp of tak­ing their fi­nal ex­ams. Many stu­dents may have spent much of their se­mes­ter more so­cially iso­lated than they had been in the past.

“If they test pos­i­tive, they re­ally need to be iso­lated for 10 days,” Tay­lor said. “Be­cause oth­er­wise, they will for sure spread when trav­el­ing or when they get home.”


A stu­dent works on her lap­top on the cam­pus of Ball State Univer­sity in Mun­cie, Ind., Sept. 10. College towns across the U.S. have emerged as coro­n­avirus hot spots in re­cent weeks.


Fans storm the field af­ter the Notre Dame Fight­ing Ir­ish de­feated the Clem­son Tigers in dou­ble over­time.


A sign di­rects peo­ple to a COVID-19 test­ing site at the Stu­dent Ser­vices Build­ing on the Univer­sity of Texas cam­pus on Aug. 24. The univer­sity is en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to get tested for coro­n­avirus be­fore they leave for Thanks­giv­ing break.

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