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Is Your College Student Bringing COVID Home for the Holidays?

How to safely handle the return of students from campus

spinner image Anthony Yanez and daughter Miranda
Anthony Yanez’s daughter Miranda is heading home from college soon.
Courtesy Anthony Yanez

Students are about to return home for the holidays in droves from college and university campuses, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise — just like in the rest of the country.

Though parents will want to welcome their scholars with open arms and big hugs, the spread of the virus means both students and parents should take precautions.

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Testing ahead of the homecoming, quarantining and travel precautions are all part of the plan for many students.

Both of Suzanne Pasternak's college-age daughters will get COVID-19 tests at school before returning home for Thanksgiving. One, who goes to High Point University in North Carolina, takes in-person classes. The other, who goes to the University of Maryland and already had the coronavirus while at school, lives in an apartment off campus and takes virtual classes.

Pasternak, 51, of Rockville, Maryland, says her daughters and one daughter's boyfriend who will join the family for Thanksgiving were happy to get tested before returning home. Pasternak's husband has juvenile diabetes. “We've been very conscientious from the get-go,” she says. “The kids have been totally understanding and very good about it."

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Asymptomatic students mean little COVID warning

Many students who get the coronavirus have few or no symptoms. Let this statistic sink in: Tulane University in New Orleans reported that roughly 90 percent of the school's students who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic — no fever, cough, fatigue or any other sign they could be contagious.

How to reduce the risk

• Have your student take a test on campus days before coming home and then quarantine to avoid additional exposure. Remember that a test only provides a snapshot in time.

• Check on state and local restrictions. Some areas will require travelers from out of state to quarantine for some period.

• Consider having your student quarantine at home after returning, away from other family members, especially if someone with an underlying medical condition lives there.

• If a student is traveling home by car with another student, ask everyone to wear a mask in the car and keep the windows cracked open.

• Learn more about the college or university's approach to testing and contact tracing.

That figure — which could be representative of the wider college-age population — means parents and students can't rely on assessing symptoms to determine if their child is bringing the virus home for Thanksgiving or Christmas break.

Tulane President Mike Fitts shares those concerns. “I was worried from day one about that, which is why we said we would do extensive testing before we allowed students to go home,” he says. “And we weren't going to send them home at all if there was an outbreak because of the threat to families and our ability to deal with surges on campus."

Tulane is testing students frequently. But according to data from more than 1,400 colleges holding classes in person this fall, most colleges and universities aren't aggressively testing students for COVID-19, even in pandemic hot spots.

Those that are, meanwhile, appear to be taking wildly varying approaches. Some test weekly, others biweekly or more. Some test only students with symptoms; others use surveillance testing, periodically evaluating samples from randomly selected students even when they show no symptoms.

With so many scenarios and radically different — and potentially serious — ramifications, parents should urge their young adults to be extra cautious before returning home for the holidays, to reduce the chances of infecting family members.

Mitigating the virus risk

Rebecca Lee Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says young adults should receive two negative tests four days apart, while self-quarantining or avoiding unnecessary exposure, before heading back to their families.

Because “a test by itself doesn't protect anybody,” students should keep in mind a well-known phrase in the anti-infection world of sexually transmitted diseases, says Lee Smith: “Your risk is equal to that of the riskiest person you interact with."

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has administered 146,000 COVID-19 tests to date, has a virtual dashboard showing the latest data on the number of tests performed, positivity rates and test turnaround times. The school recently sent emails encouraging students to get tested two or three days before their planned departure.

"We test off-campus students, but not all universities do,” says campus spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski. Those who don't have on-campus access “should make sure they go to a local clinic."

And remember, tests are only a snapshot in time. A student who tests negative before traveling home still can become exposed to the virus in transit, says Ramon Tallaj, a medical doctor and founder of the nonprofit SOMOS Community Care, a network of physicians in Manhattan.

"A negative test doesn't guarantee you don't get [the virus] after that,” he says. “If they come home and have a chance to get another test, have them do it again."

Students can help mitigate risk between campus and the front door. Those riding home by car with friends should wear a mask and open windows if possible. If the temperature is too low, open windows occasionally to release contaminated air. Be sure the heater is using outside air and not recirculated air. Students using public transportation (buses, trains, planes) should wear masks, wash hands frequently, sit near empty seats if able, and avoid crowds.

In Texas, one health expert is recommending extra precautions.

Mark Escott, a physician and the Austin-Travis County interim health authority, suggests that students who participate in unmasked extracurricular activities or live on college campuses wear masks and practice social distancing around family throughout the holiday season. And keep in mind that some states and localities have quarantine requirements for those who are coming in from out of state.

Understand college testing and contact tracing

To understand the possible exposure students may have had on campus, it's important to know what kind of testing of students a college or university is doing. Tulane, for example, is doing surveillance testing, administering many tests to students with quick results.

"It's a real undertaking,” Fitts says. Tulane is able to use this method because it has a medical school. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among colleges with in-person classes and approximately 5,000 undergraduates, only 6 percent routinely have tested all of their students in the fall semester.

With Thanksgiving less than a week away, some parents feel they can't get information from schools fast enough. They phone, email, post concerns on social media.

Parents should be asking schools about more than tests, says Lee Smith. “Do they do contact tracing? And what do they consider a contact?"

But higher education officials can do only so much, notes Lee Smith.

"Start asking questions of your child and the choices they're making,” she says. “A lot more of the burden has to fall to individuals to keep themselves safe."

While some parents may be masked when reuniting with their children, Anthony Yanez, 53, won't be when welcoming home 18-year-old daughter Miranda, a freshman at Virginia's College of William & Mary.

Yanez says that's because the public research university has been “very reassuring” to parents by sending weekly COVID-related emails and holding frequent video panels over the summer — often with the president and other leadership — on data, the school's partnership with medical labs, its commitment to contact tracing and more.

But even though he's “not sweating it now,” Yanez knows that could change.

"My wife just told me the other day, ‘We're not spring chickens anymore,'” he says. “We're approaching the age where we're becoming high-risk."

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