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The COVID Essentials Your College Student Needs

Air purifiers, masks and pulse oximeters might be on the packing list

spinner image Back to school concept with face mask
Yulia Naumenko / Getty Images

The coronavirus has put a new spin on the usual college packing list — especially now that the highly contagious BA.5 subvariant has renewed concerns about COVID-19 infections

As students head to college campuses in the middle of a new wave of the pandemic, they still need that mattress pad and shower caddy, but now they should also bring hand sanitizer, a good supply of masks and maybe a pulse oximeter, too.​

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​With most colleges offering face-to-face classes, many students will be back in dorms, apartments and fraternity and sorority houses. They’ll be exposed to new people — and possibly to COVID-19.​

​So how should parents equip college-age children to give them the best chance of staying healthy — or recovering quickly — if students do contract the coronavirus? ​

Students' pandemic necessities 

Start with masks — and a lot of them, says Leann Poston, a physician and educator who is a professional content contributor at Invigor Medical. At some schools, masking in class and in public spaces like the library may be mandated or optional, but in either scenario it’s important for students to have masks on hand.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), loosely woven cloth masks provide the least protection, layered finely woven ones offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) provide the highest level of protection. But make sure these masks are comfortable, because students may have to spend hours wearing them.

Some college students may spurn masks, but it’s important that they have them available, Poston says.

“College students are most likely to wear cloth masks because they are the most accessible and cheapest. Any mask choice is better than none if they have symptoms,” Poston says. “Even a cloth mask will help prevent viral-laden droplets from being expelled into the air.”​​

​While most college and university health centers will have plenty of COVID-19 testing capabilities, it may be wise to toss in a few rapid tests for those middle-of-the night worries that a sore throat could be COVID. However, many schools will have testing available on demand: At Case Western Reserve University, rapid antigen tests and PCR tests are available through vending machines across the campus; San Diego State University also has campus vending machines containing tests for students and faculty.

Also on the packing list is a digital oral thermometer with disposable probe covers — a staple in the typical college tool kit. (Though keep in mind that many COVID-19 patients don’t get a fever.) But parents might want to upgrade to a faster infrared forehead thermometer. Add to that an inexpensive pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygen levels and can help determine when COVID-19 patients should seek medical care.​​

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A multivitamin also might have been standard before the pandemic, but adding in zinc, vitamin D and vitamin C could be a good idea now. Experts say these supplements can help bolster the immune system. Remind students — particularly those who might be taking a significant number of classes online — to strive for a healthy diet and at least 20 minutes of sunshine a couple of days a week.​​

Another good investment is an air purifier, Poston says. Get one with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to help keep the dorm room air clean. If possible, have students keep doors and/or windows open, or run a fan as well to circulate the air.​​

Despite college students’ aversion to cleaning, make sure to send them back to school with plenty of hand soap and disinfectant wipes for wiping down high-traffic surfaces, and include hand sanitizer for the dorm and backpack, too.​​

Make a sick-day plan

Valerie Sterns, 55, says she and her husband used to be “a little apprehensive” about COVID-19 and their son Luke, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a resident assistant, Luke works closely with dozens of students. Even though he is vaccinated, Sterns knows that her son is still at risk of contracting the virus. ​

spinner image Valerie Sterns and her son
Valerie Sterns has made sure her son Luke has masks and other COVID essentials as he heads off to college.
Courtesy of Valerie Sterns

​But Sterns, who lives in Triangle, Virginia, says Luke has “mastered the COVID environment over the course of the pandemic.” He masks up in large crowds and regularly washes his hands, she says.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t ever think about potential illness. “There seems to still be an uptick in some areas, so we’re definitely cognizant of that,” Sterns says. “But he’s being aware and alert and keeping up with what’s in the news.” ​

Parents should discuss with their children beforehand what to do in case they become ill (with anything) on campus, as well as make sure they know where to get health care and support, either through the college medical system or outside health care options. Students should have a more detailed plan for what to do if they contract COVID-19.​​

“If [your child] thinks they might have COVID, what is the policy for reporting it? How can they keep their roommates from getting it? How do they get tested?” Poston says.​​​​

In addition, given that parents lose the right to access their child’s medical records without permission once that child turns 18, it’s a good idea to have a signed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release and medical power of attorney form available online. These give health care providers permission to release and share medical information with parents and guardians in an emergency.​​

New college protocols

Parents should know that colleges and universities are working to minimize virus transmission on campus with vaccine and testing requirements. At Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, all students will be given a rapid antigen test on arrival and are required to take a PCR test 48 to 72 hours later at a campus testing center.

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is tying its mask mandate to the CDC’s community level data by county. Durham County, where Duke is located, remains at a high level of risk, so masking is required in classrooms. That will change once the risk level has been reduced to medium or low for two consecutive weeks. And like many colleges and universities, the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, provides detailed guidance and answers to common COVID-related questions — about vaccinations, testing, reporting symptoms and positive tests — on its website. ​​​​​

Parents can — and should — run through scenarios of what can happen and advise how to respond. But the truth is, they can only do so much to prepare their children for living independently in this uncharted territory, says Max Lebow, medical director at Reliant Immediate Care Medical Group in Los Angeles. ​

​“You have to let go and let your young adult make their own decisions,” Lebow says. “Your job as a parent is to make sure those decisions are as well-informed as they can be, and to be supportive.”​​​​​

spinner image Woman washing or sanitizing her hands at the kitchen sink
Getty Images

12 College Necessities

  1. ​Masks​
  2. Rapid tests
  3. Oral or no-touch thermometer
  4. Pulse oximeter​
  5. Air purifier
  6. Vitamins, including zinc, vitamin D and vitamin C to boost immune system
  7. Hand sanitizer, for the dorm and backpack
  8. Disinfectant wipes and cleaning supplies
  9. Hands-free trash can
  10. Tissues
  11. Antibacterial soap
  12. Signed HIPAA and medical power of attorney forms

Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education, and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children’s book M is for Mindful.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published August 5, 2021, has been updated to include new information.

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