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The New Back-to-College Shopping List, Updated for Coronavirus

Air purifiers, masks, pulse oximeters should now be among items packed

Back to school concept with face mask

Yulia Naumenko / Getty Images

En español | The coronavirus has put a new spin on the usual college packing list.

Students 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.

As thousands of young adults head back to college, their parents’ approach to prepare them for campus needs to be updated. While some colleges are holding face-to-face classes, many others are taking classes online for the semester. Either way, 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.

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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. If you're going with disposable ones, students are likely to need more than you think. Reusable cloth masks are also a good idea, including those with a pocket for a filter that provides added protection. But make sure these masks are comfortable because students may have to spend hours wearing them.

Keep in mind that students aren't always fastidious about cleaning and hygiene, says Leann Poston, a physician and educator who is a professional content contributor at Invigor Medical.

"Knowing that careful laundering is probably not a priority for a college student, I would buy a week's worth of cloth masks and a box of disposable masks,” she says.

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 about 40 percent of 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.

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 all their 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 such as doorknobs and light switches. Plenty of hand sanitizer, for the dorm and backpack, should be included too.

Make a sick-day plan

With stories of COVID-19 parties and concerns about dropping students on college campuses in the middle of a pandemic, parental anxiety levels are ramping up. Despite some of those fears, Tricia Zadjura, 52, of Ellicott City, Maryland, is sending her son Jake, a hospitality/tourism major, back to West Virginia University for his senior year.

Tricia Zadjura is sending her son Jake back to college.

Courtesy of Tricia Zadjura

Tricia Zadjura is sending her son Jake back to college at West Virginia University.

"We want our son to have the fun, normal experience, but are so nervous that he'll get sick,” she says.

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 do 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.

Zadjura told her son that “if he gets sick, we want him home. If he's too sick to drive, we'd go get him."

But not all parents may feel that way. If a student's COVID-19 case is mild, it may be safer to recover on campus rather than introducing the virus to family members back at home. But it's also possible that if a student's case is severe, parents may want to bring a child home for treatment. Either way, parents and students should agree on a plan for various scenarios before the campus drop-off.

In addition, given that parents lose the ability 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 new protocols and restrictions around social distancing, mask wearing and in-person classes.

For example, all on-campus students at Arizona State University will receive a “Community of Care” kit that contains face coverings, a thermometer, hand sanitizer and other items to help monitor and maintain good health. These items can be restocked anytime. Students who get sick will be given isolation space if needed, along with health care and food-delivery services as they continue their classes, if they are able, through remote learning.

Michigan State University, meanwhile, is converting a freshman dorm into isolation housing for the fall semester. Akers Hall, with its quad-style layout, mitigates risk of transmission with in-room bathrooms that limit the need for movement in hallways, school officials say.

While all this feels overwhelming, there is a bit of good news. Since the coronavirus enters the body through receptor sites on cells that become more prevalent as we age, younger people have fewer of those cells.

That's why younger people often “get a milder case,” says Max Lebow, medical director at Reliant Immediate Care Medical Group in Los Angeles. “This is probably why so many young people may be asymptomatic."

Even so, young adults do get the virus — and can become extremely ill — so Lebow suggests that roommates mark their initials on their cups and dishes, wipe down bathroom surfaces after each use, and wash their hands well or even take a shower after returning to the dorm or apartment.

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.

"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."

Woman washing or sanitizing her hands at the kitchen sink

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11 College Necessities

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

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