If you have a kiddo away at college right now, you may be looking forward to their first arrival home since you dropped them off. But you may also be aware of how quickly COVID-19 has spread across college campuses this school year. According to data compiled by The New York Times, Texas universities top the list of surveyed schools with the highest COVID-19 cases among college students — more than California and Florida combined, two states which have had high case numbers statewide since the beginning of the pandemic.
That being said, you may be wondering how to prepare for your student’s arrival home, especially if you have high-risk family members or plans to gather for the holidays. While the decision is completely up to you and your family, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one to make, says David Ko, M.D., a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Family Care in The Colony. So, we asked, ‘Should you quarantine your student this year?’
First Things First, Get Informed
In 2020, there is no universal approach to the holiday break for colleges and universities — and if you have multiple students at different schools, you may know that all too well. While some universities are encouraging their students to stay on campus, especially for the short Thanksgiving break, others are allowing students to go home. Additionally, some universities are using Thanksgiving break as an opportunity to send students home to begin their winter break or finish their semesters remotely.
Understanding what your student’s university is doing is the first step in figuring out what will work best for your family. If their university is sending them home for good to start up the winter break after Thanksgiving or to finish out the semester with remote learning, you may not be able to keep them on campus if that’s your plan. Explore your options. Many universities have homepages dedicated to their COVID-19 response and plans to help you get informed and make decisions based on the information available.
“The good thing that some of these schools are doing is setting up guidelines and plans, so check the guidelines for your student’s school regarding holiday travel,” Ko says. “From what I’m hearing, some schools are doing modifications in scheduling, such as ending the semester right around Thanksgiving break, or right after Thanksgiving they’re doing 100 percent virtual classes for the rest of the semester so you don’t have to worry about sending them back to school for a few weeks before they head back home for winter break. But every situation is going to be different and you just need to arm yourself with information pertinent to your situation.”
Understand Your Family’s Risks
While you may want to come together even more this holiday season because of the unprecedented year 2020 has been, it’s still important to take the risk seriously, especially since young people have been identified as sources of some family outbreaks, infecting their older, more vulnerable relatives who either live in the same household or who they’ve come in contact with.
While Ko says there is not a definite ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, the decision you and your family makes is 100 percent unique to your feelings and individual risk factors, meaning what you choose to do may look different from what the next family does, and so on.
“Unfortunately, there’s a give and take with students going back to in-person learning,” Ko adds. “They get to see their friends and be in the environment, but there’s also the possibility that they can come in contact with someone who is positive for COVID-19. If you have a student back at school, you need to take that into account when deciding on your holiday plans this year, especially if you have family members who stand a high risk.”
In Canada, where Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October, officials have blamed an uptick in case counts on holiday gatherings, which can be a bit of a cautionary tale as Americans head into the holiday season.
Assess Travel Options
Take into account how your student will get home. If your student goes to a school that requires air travel, or takes multiple pit stops during their drive home, it’s important to assess the risk associated with that because travel could increase a student’s risk of exposure to the virus.
One of the safest options is driving alone where you can control your exposure level. On a solo road trip, your student needs to focus on being careful anytime they are outside their car. Furthermore, getting gas and food or stopping to use the restroom if needed should be very brief.
If your student has to travel by plane, train or bus, they should follow safety measures such as mask-wearing and good hand hygiene. You can also schedule their flight during non-peak times, if possible. Avoid weekends and instead travel at night or very early in the morning when fewer people tend to fly.
Experts also recommended that college students follow state travel guidelines, especially if your student is coming from out of state or even out of the country. Most states have varying restrictions in place depending on where people are coming from, often requiring a 14-day quarantine or proof of a negative test in the past 72 hours.
If you have to pick up your student from school or need to clear out their dorm/apartment in anticipation of not returning back after winter break, it’s recommended that everyone, including the student, wear a mask at all times (even when traveling home if you have to share a car) and practice good hand hygiene. If you have to clear out their dorm, chances are your student’s school will have staggered times in which you can enter to help reduce the potential of spread and increase social distancing.
To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine?
That leads us to our main question: should you quarantine your student this year? While it may seem harsh, especially since the holidays are all about spending time together, quarantining your student for 14 days upon arrival home is noted as the safest option by Ko and multiple other organizations and agencies.
“I think quarantining your student who is coming home is the safest plan, even though it’s not the most ideal for spending time with family members, which is what coming home for the holidays is all about,” he says. “It’s just a tough decision, but unfortunately there is asymptomatic spread, so while your student may feel perfectly fine, it does not mean they weren’t recently exposed and could possibly spread it to you or other members of the home.”
There are two options when it comes to quarantining though, and they mostly depend on how your student plans to get home and what their living arrangement is like at school. If your student is driving themselves home, self-quarantining on campus and being tested before leaving may be enough to avoid a second quarantine at home. If your student shares a living arrangement, such as a dorm, house or apartment, everyone in the living environment must be onboard to quarantine as well.
The second option is to quarantine for 14 days once home, especially if the student is not able to quarantine at school or has to travel with others in order to get home. If you’d still like for everyone, including your student, to be at the dinner table come Thanksgiving, consider having them come home early so they can quarantine for 14-days before the big meal. If your student is learning virtually this year, leaving early shouldn’t affect their studies.
If students decide to self-quarantine on campus, they should do as much mask-wearing and self-quarantining as possible in the two weeks before leaving.
“They’ve got to be wearing their mask, they can’t be going to a party, they can’t be in a large gathering,” says Gary Simon, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at George Washington University. “You go to whatever class you have to go to, and then you stay at home. Then everybody makes compromises after that. If you have to go out to the store to get some food, do so, but then don’t go to a restaurant and sit inside with your friends.”
In the days before leaving campus, students should also be tested, preferably with a PCR test, the laboratory test used to diagnose the coronavirus. Many colleges and universities have been regularly testing their students or have made testing easily accessible. But because the test is just a snapshot in time, ideally, students should get two negative tests separated by three days before heading back home since the virus’s highly variable incubation period, which can extend as long as 14 days, makes it risky to rely on just one negative test result.
Consider a possible scenario in which the virus takes seven days to incubate. If a student is exposed on the Wednesday eight days before Thanksgiving and is tested that Friday before heading home, the result would be negative. But they can still be infectious at the dinner table by Thanksgiving, which is ultimately what you’re trying to avoid.
Communicate Clearly and Set Expectations
Talking with your student about your family’s plans for the holidays and how you will handle their arrival home is important, as well as reiterating the safety measures they must adhere to if they’d like to come home and not spend two weeks quarantined in their room before spending time with the family.
But once they come home and have spent their time in quarantine, it’s also important to set expectations with them. If they normally visit with hometown friends after coming back from school or like to go out to local social hotspots such as bars, movie theaters, malls or restaurants, you may need to discuss alternative options with them. That may mean not going over to a friend’s house but instead meeting up with friends outdoors. It may even mean not meeting up at all, whatever your family is most comfortable with. Setting clear expectations and rules in preparation for their arrival and then what will happen once they’re back home will help make the transition easier for everyone.
No matter the decision you and your family make this season, we know students and their families will want to be together, whether that means in person or virtually. It might be safer for students not to go home, in terms of protecting their family, but we know the emotional toll that can take, and if your student has to leave campus, you may have no choice in the matter. It’s important to discuss your plans as a family to help figure out how you will prepare for the arrival of your student and how you’ll navigate the holidays as well.
“There’s always going to be risks, and it comes down to what level of risk you’re willing to take,” Ko says. “Think about if you have family members who your student will be in contact with who may have medical issues that put them at a higher risk. Also think about these things even if you just have children who are doing in-person learning at the kindergarten through 12th-grade level, and be flexible with your plans, especially since they most likely won’t line up with what you traditionally do this time of year.
“That means you and your family may have to maintain a distance from grandma and grandpa during the holidays, which stinks, but you can connect virtually which is the safest option,” Ko adds. “Some people are being really creative and doing a drive-by at loved ones’ houses, but it’s still just a tough decision to have to make.”