Should college students go home for the holidays? This is what experts say

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With Thanksgiving swiftly approaching and COVID numbers still spiking around the country, many college students are stuck trying to decide if going home for the holidays is really safe this year.

Many experts are advising against travel this year until the end of the semester.

“What we need to do is just buckle in and do the hard thing, which is not going home for Thanksgiving,” President of the Massachusetts Medical Society Dr. Rosman said.

The risk of going home for the holidays

Rosman said his concern is that younger people are less likely to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are sick.

“Let’s just imagine all of those sick people ages 30 and younger go home and visit their 60, 70 and 80-year-old parents and grandparents. All of a sudden, now we have a catastrophe on our hands,” Rosman said.

Dr. John O’Horo, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist, echoed this concern, adding that it’s important to consider any high-risk family members you may be putting in danger.

“The first thing to consider is who are you going to be traveling to and is it really going to be safe for you or for them,” O’Horo said. “If you have any kind of chronic health conditions or they have any chronic health conditions, this is a year to really weigh whether or not it’s worth it to travel because the risk is higher than it is in previous years.”

Epidemiologist Aaron Milstone put it bluntly.

“You could inadvertently give this to someone, and it could kill them,” he said. “I know a lot of young people think, ‘It’s not a big deal. My friends have gotten it, they all did fine. They had to stay in their rooms. No big deal.’ But that’s not the case for your parents and your grandparents.”

That being said, Milstone also added that he understands the emotional toll it could take on college students and their families to be separated during the holidays. To that end, some colleges are offering solutions to help students get home and stay safe.

Boston University students have the option to go home for Thanksgiving if they agree to stay home for the rest of the semester, finishing their classes online. Some schools around the country have even opted to end the semester early so students can go home for Thanksgiving without the risk of returning back to campus.

The State University of New York is requiring that all students have a negative result on a covid test before they can leave for Thanksgiving break. While this is good, experts cautioned that without a 14-day quarantine, a negative test can only be considered so reliable.

“People shouldn’t leave campus on Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving and think that they can safely dine with their family without having done any quarantine or testing before they left,” Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital said.

How to return home the safest way possible

For students who must return home, it’s not impossible to do it safely. However, it will require some planning.

First and foremost, you have to quarantine and you have to start soon.

“There shouldn’t be the expectation that you’re going to not quarantine at school, arrive home and somehow think you can do that within 48 hours of when you plan to cut turkey,” Walensky said. “The safest thing to do is go home two weeks before Thanksgiving, which we’re almost at, hang out [in your room] for two weeks and then come out of your quarantine.”

However, for students who decide to quarantine on campus before returning home, they’ll need to be sure to wear a mask and follow social distancing guidelines to a T.

“They’ve got to be wearing their mask, they can’t be going to a party, they can’t be in a large gathering,” Gary Simon, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at George Washington University said. “You go to whatever class you have to go to, and then you stay at home. That’s the maximal thing you can do.”

If you can’t quarantine for a full 14 days and still choose to go home, O’Horo recommends wearing a mask around your family until your 14-day quarantine is officially over.

As for getting home, the safest option is to drive yourself, if you can.

“If you’re in your own car, then you’re controlling your exposures,” Milstone said.

He added that the brief interactions you have with people stopping to get gas or use the restroom are nothing compared to “waiting in an airport for an hour for your flight and spending a few hours sitting on an airplane around people you may not know.”

Dr. Anita Barkin, one of the co-chairs of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 Task Force, agreed that private transportation is always best, and echoed the importance of quarantine.

“Once at home,” she said, “the most cautious recommendation would be to stay physically distant for the first 14 days from other household members, wear a mask, no kissing or hugging, wipe surfaces down and use separate eating utensils.”

For many, returning home this Thanksgiving may be inevitable. However, if you have a choice and you can’t return safely, the consensus seems to be to stay where you are for now.

“It’s a difficult choice, but choosing to host a virtual Thanksgiving could save a life,” Massachusetts Secretary of health and human services Marylou Sudders said.

Walensky agreed.

“Reach for the delayed gratification this year,” she said. “Because what you don’t want is to celebrate this year and have fewer people at next year’s table.”