With Thanksgiving right around the corner, this marks the time of year when students rush home for the holidays. In preparation, some colleges are switching completely to online learning for the rest of the term so students don't need to return to campus to finish classes or take finals.
Getting a break from school usually calls for a sigh of relief for college students. That's not really the case this year with the recent resurgence of COVID cases and stay-at-home orders being reissued while students travel home.
We talked to students from around the country about their schools' COVID guidelines surrounding Thanksgiving break and whether the recent wave of new cases is a source of worry as they make their treks home.
The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT] (New York)
Thanksgiving plans: Miles Poon flew home early so he’d have time to quarantine before Thanksgiving dinner. He plans to stay home until he heads back to campus for spring semester. But before students return, RIT is requiring all of them to get a flu shot.
YR Media: So what are your plans for Thanksgiving break?
Miles Poon: School gets out on November 24. And I [went] back 10 days earlier. I didn’t want to be on the airplane with a bunch of people and RIT gives one day for traveling — like right before Thanksgiving. And if I leave then, everybody's going to be flying at that time.
And recently, COVID cases have been going up. So my biggest worry is that I will be giving it to like my grandparents on Thanksgiving if I happen to come back with COVID. So I’m doing my best to make sure that that doesn't happen — going a little bit earlier and then making sure to get a test and quarantine.
YR: What kind of regulations do they have in place for Thanksgiving?
MP: All of our finals are going to be remote. And after we leave for Thanksgiving break, we won’t be coming back. We're just going to stay at home and then finish all of our finals there. And then we'll go back after winter break.
I [recently] got a flu shot because it’s required to go back on campus next semester. I got that [at school] because it's free through the school’s health insurance.
I'm guessing it’s required to make sure people are healthy in general going into the spring semester. My guess is [getting flu shots] would help dissuade potential false positives of COVID — like we don't want a bunch of flu season cases to get mistaken as COVID cases.
University of Notre Dame (Indiana)
Thanksgiving plans: Lauren Bakke is staying at her off-campus housing near school for Thanksgiving. Notre Dame is ending their fall semester before Thanksgiving, giving students a 10-week winter break before they return for the spring semester in January.
YR Media: So what are your plans for Thanksgiving break?
Lauren Bakke: I'll be spending Thanksgiving with a few of my friends who are staying at school. I'd say my friends are pretty COVID safe — no one really goes to bars and restaurants and stuff like that. And since we're all getting tested right as the semester ends, I think we plan on just trying to stay pretty separated as best we can during our Thanksgiving meal [if we haven't gotten our results].
Since I live in Minnesota and I have a car, if I want to make that trip, it takes eight hours. But I knew that the break is 10 weeks. And paying rent for all that time and never even being here just seemed like somewhat of a waste. So I decided I would be at school for two to three weeks after the semester ended and probably the last two to three weeks [before school starts again].
YR: Does your school have any guidelines for the end of the semester before everyone leaves for the break?
LB: We’re required to take an exit test and get that negative result before the university allows us to travel home. Notre Dame will put holds on students’ registration for those who don't abide by those rules. And for me, I think it would be fine to travel home after I get a negative test result.
YR: We’re seeing another rise in COVID cases across the country — particularly in the Midwest. Does that worry you for your upcoming trip home?
LB: That doesn't worry me too badly because I'll be driving home. [COVID] is actually part of the reason why I brought one of my family's cars to school because I can just drive back home and to school safely.
So I really should be able to just like get in the car and get home safely without really coming in contact with too many people. I'll probably just like bring my own food and stuff so that I don't have to like really make a lot of stops.
Tufts Cummings Veterinary School (Massachusetts)
Thanksgiving plans: Annie Chen flew home to southern California about a week early for Thanksgiving break. Her semester will continue remotely for a few weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday. Her school required students to take a COVID test weekly throughout the fall term, and while taking an exit COVID test isn’t required, that won’t be the case for coming back in January.
YR: How do you feel about your school’s guidelines around students leaving and coming back from break?
Annie Chen: I think my school is doing a really good job at handling it. So they're offering a COVID test so that people who are going home can feel like more at peace before they leave. If you're staying for Thanksgiving break, they ask you to fill out this form so that you can just continue getting tested throughout Thanksgiving.
I think there's actually more regulations coming back from winter break. We’re getting tested three times before we can start our in-person labs again — first when we get back, another test two days after, and once more like a week after.
YR: We’re seeing another big wave of COVID cases across the country, does that worry you since you had to travel home recently?
AC: In general, I’m really worried because I think California reached over 1 million cases. So going back home actually worries me more since it feels like Massachusetts is handling it a little better. And I’m worried I could possibly spread [COVID] to my mom.
[Right now] I'm quarantining at home, but I can’t quarantine from my mom because we live in the same house. But at least I have my own bathroom and my own room.
I got tested like two or three days after to double check just in case I picked up something on the plane. And I’m obviously watching out for symptoms. And then maybe get tested again like after a week just in case. And until I get a negative COVID test, I’m not going anywhere.
Chamberlain College of Nursing, Nevada
Thanksgiving plans: Christian Suriben will be flying home next week and will stay for five days. He plans to fly back the following Sunday to resume in-person classes two days later. His school does not have protocols for students leaving for the break or returning to campus.
YR Media: Since your school isn’t providing you guidelines for the break, what do you plan on doing to stay safe?
Christian Suriben: We’ll probably do the same as when I visited for the first time [at the beginning of quarantine]. My family didn’t hug me when I came home. They encouraged me to take the clothes I was wearing and clothes I brought and throw it in the laundry using gloves immediately. And for Thanksgiving, we're not going to see any friends or family. It's just going to be our immediate family.
YR: So you resume in-person lab classes a couple days after you get back to school. Do you have concerns about heading back to school without being able to quarantine?
CS: If this was a different school, I'd definitely be worried. But we are in school to become nurses — not to sound pretentious or anything like that. But we've taken months of classes literally on like preventing contamination and stuff. And I feel like since I actually know who all of my classmates are, that helps build my trust in them.
So since the school is small and filled with people who know about the risks and want to work in the medical field, I'd like to think that there’s a smaller risk.
YR: Given the recent surge in new COVID cases, does that worry you about your travel plans to go home and back to school?
CS: I’d say that the rise of cases gives me an increased risk of worry in general, like for the sake of the country. For myself, it doesn't increase or decrease my personal stress over it because I feel like I've grown the habits to lessen the risk of contracting the virus. And while it's never zero, I feel like I'm doing everything I can to lower the risk.