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Hundreds of Thousands of Students Traveled Home This Week Amid COVID Spike

Masking, social distancing and single-household celebrations are key to stopping new outbreaks.

People wait in line at a TSA security checkpoint at Orlando International Airport on Thanksgiving eve, November 25, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.

After a fall spent studying on ghost-town campuses, hundreds of thousands of college students headed home this week — joining millions of travelers passing through airports and making pit stops in places they might not otherwise visit, likely contributing to an exponential rise of COVID cases in the United States. No more than a handful of colleges have an “exit plan” for students, Inside Higher Ed reports, and plans vary significantly among schools. The lack of uniform vacation policy and testing protocol has created mixed messages for students, leaving many uncertain of what their role should be in keeping families safe.

India Sanford is a 20-year-old junior at the University of Arizona who recently flew home to Philadelphia. At first, Sanford thought coming home was a bad idea, worrying that she might expose her 70-year-old grandmother who lives with her family. “I thought I might catch it at the airport or on the plane and I would feel so bad if I gave it to anybody at home,” she told Truthout, scoffing at White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas’s recent comments that Americans should proceed with Thanksgiving plans because the elderly are bound to die soon anyway.

Dr. Rebekah Fenton, an adolescent medicine fellow at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a health equity activist, said it is essential that college students and their families follow the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on holiday celebrations, which include postponing nonessential travel. But for many college students, traveling home is essential due to dorm closures or limited or no access to food over the holidays. “Students shouldn’t feel ashamed for returning home when it may be a necessity,” Fenton told Truthout.

Like many colleges, the University of Arizona has announced plans to shift all classes online after Thanksgiving break, and has “strongly encouraged” students who head home this week not to return campus. The university offers rapid antigen testing and results are available within an hour after taking the test, which university officials have suggested students take 10 days before traveling in case of a need to isolate. Sanford says she’s satisfied with her school’s response, given the circumstances, adding that she thinks only a strict national lockdown, perhaps aided by paying people to stay at home, could have helped avoid the campus shutdowns students and faculty now face. Sanford pointed specifically to New Zealand as an example, where a first wave of COVID was effectively eliminated in June, following a stringent lockdown.

Any uptick in travel may increase the probability of contributing to overall transmission dynamics. A study tracking mobility and COVID-19 transmission around the Lunar New Year in China in February 2020 suggests that a 10 percent increase in travel volume corresponded with a 7 percent rise in the number of infected cases in a given city. The authors note that disease diffusion occurred in two stages in Chinese cities around the holiday: between cities before the Lunar New Year and within cities after the Lunar New Year, and particularly among locations with more intercity travel between Wuhan, where the virus was first identified.

The University of Arizona’s protocol reflects a shift toward both public and private colleges announcing plans to turn to online learning for the remainder of the semester. On November 18, a coalition of governors of seven Northeast states called on residential colleges and universities to fully shift to online instruction to limit travel back to campus and to test students before they leave. But fewer than a third of colleges have mandated testing, according to Davidson University professor and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, a new effort to track higher education institution responses to the pandemic.

Plenty of residential schools across the country, many of them private, have taken less authoritative stances on testing and travel. Tia Thomas is an 18-year-old freshman at Valparaiso University, a private college outside of Gary, Indiana. On November 11, Valparaiso University brought all classes online, giving students the option to go home or to finish the semester on campus. Thomas told Truthout she wanted to get tested before leaving for peace of mind, especially because her mother, who planned to drive her home, is immunocompromised. But the majority of available testing, both on and off campus, was only offered to people with symptoms or to those who got a referral from a doctor, neither of which Thomas had. The one location she found that offered asymptomatic tests was full. “So, I really don’t have any option other than just going home without getting tested,” she said, noting that there is a free testing site in her Wisconsin town, where she’ll go upon arrival.

Though it’s an important risk-reduction strategy, testing is not a foolproof plan for safe celebration and cohabitation, as Wired has reported. According to research by the Brookings Institution, it may actually embolden behaviors that increase transmission. Some travelers mistakenly think that if they test negative before departure and wear a mask throughout travel, they are guaranteed to be “COVID-free.”

Thomas, who is studying nursing and says the pandemic has not discouraged her from pursuing a career in the medical field, explained that complications around getting tested before traveling has been eye-opening. “It’s made me realize that health insurance and the whole American medical thing — it’s complicated, especially compared to other countries,” she said, referring to friends she’s in touch with who live in Turkey and Spain, which both have universal health care systems.

Proponents of single-payer health care argue a Medicare for All-like model in the U.S. may have helped save lives. While Fenton agrees universal health care may have mitigated the degree of the health crisis the U.S. is experiencing, larger structural issues are more to blame. “Many of the effects we are seeing are not due to health care quality or access but disparities in the environment where people live and work,” she said. “Yet, a society that values universal health care may also value making sure that everyone has access to housing, clean air and water, a living wage, sick leave and other factors that affect health.”

Thomas and Sanford’s families have both decided to cancel their normal Thanksgiving plans, which entail gathering with 15 to 25 extended family members, many from out of state in Thomas’s case. Instead, both students will be celebrating the holiday with immediate family members, who they say agree about the holiday precautions. But many families around the U.S. are taking a less cautious approach. According to polling by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of 1,500 parents, one-third say celebrating Thanksgiving is worth the risk of catching or spreading COVID.

That approach is rooted in American exceptionalism, scholars have argued. In contrast, it’s a common practice for people throughout the world to observe holidays far from their loved ones, Syracuse University Geography Professor Farhana Sultana told Truthout over email, suggesting that observing Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States should be no different. Sultana pointed out that the largest pilgrimage in the world, the Hajj, was canceled earlier this year. “This pandemic needs to be reined in, so both individual choices matter alongside formal policy advice and institutional mechanisms that promote pandemic response,” she said. Much like the climate crisis, which Sultana studies, solving the COVID crisis will require both individual and system-wide interventions.

Thomas, the Valparaiso University student, is supposed to return to campus on January 25. But she has a feeling the Joe Biden administration might swiftly issue stay-at-home orders that could keep her home for weeks, or months. When asked how she would feel about delaying her return to campus, Thomas said she thinks it would be a good idea. “It’s sad because I really want to go back, but if having to go on lockdown for that time means I can go back to college normally, or for a longer period of time, then I’ll do that.”

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