IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As Thanksgiving break nears, colleges are faced with student travel during a pandemic

Some colleges and universities are urging students to stay on campus instead of going home for the holiday.
Image: Boston University, Pandemic Alters College Life
Students sit at socially distanced desks as they attend a Public Relations class at Boston University on Sept. 23, 2020.Jessica Rinaldi / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

As coronavirus cases around the country continue to rise, some colleges and universities are urging students to remain on campus instead of visiting family for Thanksgiving, while others are asking that those who do travel home consider finishing the semester remotely.

Boston University is one of many schools that are encouraging students to skip family gatherings this year and remain in town.

"Stay here or stay where you are now rather than going away — even around the corner — for the break. It’s the wise choice," the school's Dean of Students office said in a memo to the campus community.

The school is planning to host events so that students who remain on campus can celebrate the holiday in a safe way, according to BU Today, the university's news website.

Brigham Young University-Idaho, a private school in Rexburg, has a variety of activities planned that include movie nights, laser tag, and miniature golf.

Students will also be able to pick up a free Thanksgiving meal that includes pre-cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, pie, and a salad. The meal packages, which had to be reserved by students, feed up to 12 people, the school's website states.

“We know a number of schools are actually stopping on-campus classes as of Thanksgiving and when the students go home or leave campus, they won’t return until the next semester," said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association (ACHA) Covid-19 Task Force, in a phone interview Thursday.

"For those students going home just for Thanksgiving, it’s a short period of time, we would ask that students strongly consider staying at school.”

The ACHA published a brief in October that included tips for colleges and universities. Among them was to encourage students to have virtual celebrations with family and, instead of going home, have a "Friendsgiving" on campus.

Brielle Gibbs, a junior biology major at the University of Arkansas, said she knows there are risks but she plans to drive nine hours home to Houston, Texas because she wants to see her family.

"I never questioned not going home for Thanksgiving because I don't get to see my family very often," she said. "I feel more comfortable driving ... to minimize the risk."

Concern over students exposing family members

Taylor said she understands that spending the holiday away from loved ones can be a difficult decision to make.

She suggested that if students do go home, they should begin to limit the number of people they are around, take a Covid-19 test prior to leaving, and then test again after they are home.

“It’s not the hugging and sitting next to each other that they’re used to but this Thanksgiving will be different this year," Taylor said.

Paul Niekamp, an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University who has done research on how spring break travel contributed to community spread of the virus, said students should try to wear a mask at home and continue to social distance.

"Student travel around Thanksgiving is especially concerning because there will be a systematic movement of students from dormitories and off-campus housing, where roommates are commonly young, to homes where household members like parents and grandparents may be more vulnerable," he said via email on Thursday.

The concern of exposing a relative to the virus is why Samantha Moore, a student at Missouri Western State University, won't be going home for the holiday. The 21-year-old said she was recently diagnosed with Covid-19 and her father is battling cancer.

“I told my family before I got sick, I was like, I'm not sure if I'm going to come home because cases are rising," she said. "And then I got sick."

She said her parents are upset they won't be seeing her, but they understand that she wants to protect them. Moore said she plans on spending Thanksgiving with her roommates and hopes to see her parents for Christmas.

“There's five of us, including me, that live here. So, I think that we're going to do a little Thanksgiving dinner just with the people that live with me," she said.

Preventing spread once students return to campus

In addition to possibly exposing relatives, there is also concern that returning students could unknowingly bring the virus back to campus.

The University of Connecticut, the University of California, Berkeley, and New York's SUNY colleges are among those schools that will hold in-person classes up until Thanksgiving break. They will then transition to remote learning so students won't be returning to campus until the spring term.

The University of Missouri announced Thursday that due to a rise in Covid-19 cases in the region, a majority of its in-person courses will temporarily move online. For those students who can't go home for the break, they can pick up a Thanksgiving meal and participate in safe social events.

SUNY said in a press release that students will have to complete a seven-day "precautionary quarantine" before they are allowed back on campus, and Covid-19 tests will be conducted upon their return.

"Our results imply that increased student travel and gatherings contribute to Covid-19 spread," Niekamp said. "Finishing the semester remotely prevents millions of students from traveling home, partaking in Thanksgiving gatherings, and then traveling back to campus."

Boston University asked students who do travel home during the break to stay there and complete the remainder of the semester online.

Those who do return to campus on Nov. 30 will have to follow Massachusetts' travel order which says, in part, that anyone entering the state has to quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative Covid-19 test that has been administered up to 72 hours prior to their arrival.

The university also has its own set of protocols that vary depending on whether a student is returning from a state deemed "low-risk" or "high-risk."