Education

Is it safe for colleges to send students home for winter break?

Dive Brief:

  • Residential colleges holding classes in-person this fall should take precautions when sending students home for winter break, including testing them for the coronavirus, public health experts say.
  • Many institutions that brought students back to campus planned to end in-person instruction around Thanksgiving. But some had to move classes online because of outbreaks on campus. Meanwhile, U.S. coronavirus case counts have turned sharply upward.
  • More than one-quarter of the 2,900-plus colleges tracked by the College Crisis Initiative planned for mostly or entirely in-person instruction this fall. One-fifth held hybrid classes.

Dive Insight:

Bringing students to campus and keeping them there posed a logistical challenge, and sending them home will, too.

Some schools that opened in person have already had to close campus because of outbreaks. This week, Keuka College, in New York, asked students to leave who haven’t tested positive for the virus or been told to quarantine, after an uptick in cases tied to an off-campus party. Other students will follow once they are cleared. 

Many other colleges have moved classes online at least temporarily because of outbreaks.

Public health officials advise colleges to build precautions into their plans for sending students home for winter break.

“You’re still concerned about the possibility of silent spreaders,” said A. David Paltiel, a health policy professor at Yale University. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 40% of coronavirus infections are asymptomatic, and about half of coronavirus transmission occurs before symptom onset.

“One policy that clearly won’t work is simply saying, ‘Well as long as you’re symptom-free you can go,'” Paltiel said. “That’s like sending a little ticking time bomb home for Thanksgiving. You don’t want to do that.”

Testing students before they leave can help. Paltiel suggests testing students twice with a period of quarantine in between.

When to test students is also a consideration. “You don’t want to test people on Tuesday and then give them a result as they’re getting to the airport,” said Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. 

Malani said the university has begun discussing steps for sending students home as planned at Thanksgiving. Exit testing will likely be part of that strategy, as will guidance about how students can safely integrate into their families’ households.

Those heading back to multigenerational homes or who have family members with comorbidities for COVID-19 are of particular concern, said Stephen Kissler, a research fellow studying infectious diseases at Harvard University, during a call with media on Wednesday. 

Colleges can help those students by providing housing over the holidays, Kissler said. Officials also can arm students headed home with public health messaging about how to keep safe amid the pandemic, Kissler added.

The CDC advises against sending infected students home if they must travel far from campus. 

It’s a risk to send any student home who tested positive for the coronavirus and is not through their quarantine period by the time break starts, said Amber D’Souza, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins University. “In the ideal scenario, those people stay in their dorm until the quarantine period would be over so that they don’t expose their families.”

Colleges can help to reinforce the importance for all students of following safety protocols such as keeping social networks small, washing their hands, wearing facemasks and social distancing, D’Souza said.

“We’ve spent so much time thinking about how can we reopen schools, and before we know it, Thanksgiving break is here,” she said. “It’s an important thing to think through how can we in our new normal do this as safely as possible.”

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