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What to Do If Your College Student Gets COVID-19

Parents need to determine if they should bring their child home and how schools are caring for the sick

Woman sick in bed concept

Roos Koole / Getty Images

En español | In mid-September, Sarah Oppenheim's son tested positive for COVID-19 at a small private college in upstate New York, over five hours away from their Manhattan home. For the next three weeks, at a hotel off campus, he battled fever, body aches and fatigue, as well as heavy lungs and an itchy rash.

"Of course you worry right away,” says Oppenheim, 62. “Your first fear is that it's really bad."

Thousands of new coronavirus cases continue to emerge on U.S. college and university campuses. The New York Times has been tracking these outbreaks and though the majority of young people recover quickly from COVID-19 infections, some college students have died after contracting the virus.

If your child is among the students who get sick, what should you do? Bring him home or leave him at school?

If Your Student Gets Sick

1. Determine whether it's best for the student to stay on or near campus or come home.

2. Make sure you have access to your child's medical information. Because most college students are adults, you must have signed legal forms that permit information sharing.

3. Assess a college or university's plan for caring for sick students.

4. If you have concerns, speak up quickly. Contact college or university officials.

Both White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, have said that students should stay sequestered on or near campus to prevent spreading the illness.

But not all parents are comfortable letting their offspring fight the coronavirus on their own — at least not without direct parental support. So what should you do?

Ask some questions

Whether to have your child convalesce at school or back home is “no small decision and is likely to be accompanied by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability,” says Iahn Gonsenhauser, an infectious disease specialist and the chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

If you want your child home, Gonsenhauser recommends first asking these questions:

  • Is there a defined, private space where your child can comfortably and safely quarantine? Does that space include a separate bathroom to reduce contamination risks?
  • Are you able to offer support such as food and other daily necessities?
  • If sharing spaces, is everyone in the house prepared and willing to wear masks and distance as much as necessary?
  • Will there be medically vulnerable family members around?
  • Is there easy access to urgent medical attention if needed?

If your child stays at school, be aware that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of student education records. In addition, because most college students are adults over 18 years old, parents will not have access to their child's medical records without explicit permission.

Sara Oppenheim & son Julian

Courtesy of Sara Oppenheim

Sarah Oppenheim with son Julian

It's a good idea to have a signed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release and a 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.

"These students are adults, not minors,” Gonsenhauser says. “This means their medical information is for their eyes only, unless they specifically grant approval for it to be managed differently."

Know what support is available

Parents need to know whether their child's school has an effective plan for managing COVID-19 cases, and how the school plans to maintain consistent communication.

Many schools have online coronavirus dashboards, which provide transparent information to students and parents about the number of cases on campus, how much testing is being done, and available quarantine beds. Some schools are requiring students to report on their health through a daily check-in, or are requiring regular COVID-19 testing.

The University of Alabama has learned from experience how to help manage the virus after a significant outbreak occurred when students returned for the fall semester. Students in quarantine and isolation now receive virtual visits with mental health professionals, a 24-hour concierge service, evening medical checks with resident physicians, and other resources.

Parents, meanwhile, have access to one phone number that directs medical and academic questions to the appropriate place.

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"With the availability of technology and FaceTime and Zoom, parents can readily check on their children,” says Richard D. Friend, a medical doctor and dean of the university's College of Community Health Sciences.

Stay involved in your child's medical care

Even when schools have systems in place, make sure to quickly voice any concerns if you feel your sick student is not getting the support or attention needed.

Before her son tested positive while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Seona Lisse had learned through a social media group of parents of freshmen at the school that students who'd already tested positive weren't being checked on every day — something the school's website initially had assured.

"When he went into isolation I was trying to get in touch with the university student health center to say, ‘What is the protocol here? How are you watching my kid?'” says Lisse, 50, of Potomac, Maryland. “Unfortunately, nobody was really able to help me until I got the director of the student health center on the phone."

The university had removed information from its website about daily checks and started giving students daily questionnaires instead. Lisse questioned whether her son, Marcus, would be too sick to fill them out. The business major was taken to a university-owned hotel for 10 days, with symptoms including a sore throat, congestion and temporary loss of taste and smell, so Lisse scheduled several virtual appointments with a physician assistant on his behalf.

Seone Lisse & son Marcus

Courtesy of Seona Lisse

Seona Lisse with son Marcus.

Now that Marcus is better, Lisse is happy to hear that the school plans to expand its testing program, beginning with the spring semester, so that all students who live on campus, attend classes or use campus spaces are tested twice each week.

"Testing is key,” she says.

Be supportive and listen

If your child does stay on or near campus while fighting the coronavirus, above all, be a good listener. Students are often worried about their health and their ability to maintain college-level work, and have social concerns as well.

Oppenheim says her son, normally a high-achieving economics major, became anxious about falling behind in his classes. She allowed him to voice fears that his college career and future job prospects might be hindered. At his lowest point he thought he might be better off at home and repeating the semester when he could give it his all. While Oppenheim never took this option off the table, she suggested he give himself permission to drop a course if he still found he couldn't catch up once he recovered.

"Ultimately this was the path he chose,” says Oppenheim, who knew Julian was in good hands, actively monitored by the school and the state.

The key for parents, Gonsenhauser says, is to determine how a college or university is handling coronavirus cases before having to deal with a sick student. “Most universities … have put a huge amount of expertise and resources into creating safe spaces for students to live, be tested, and isolate or quarantine,” he says. “Find out what they've done at your student's school so you can make an informed decision, together."

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