A College Student’s Coming Home. Should The Whole Family Wear Masks?

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Sarah Gonzales for NPR


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She recommends students take another test when they get home, and in the meantime they should stay masked up after they return home and keep six feet away from other family members.

Masks and social distancing may seem like they take all the warmth and humanity out of the holiday, but Guzman-Cottrill says any place where 5% or more COVID-19 tests return positive is a high risk zone. Before travelling students and parents should evaluate the rates of infection on campus and the surrounding community.

Not all colleges are offering students testing before they leave for the holidays. The College Crisis Initiative did a random survey of approximately one hundred four-year institutions and found only eight were offering additional testing to students before the break.

«There’s a sense, at least at some colleges, that once the semester finishes and students leave, it’s not their problem,» says Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Seton Hall transitioned to online classes this week, amid a rising number COVID-19 cases on campus. The school is encouraging all students to get tested at the University health center before they head home.

Limit your social activities starting now

For colleges that don’t have resources for exit testing — many are encouraging students to essentially lock down before heading out for Thanksgiving.

«If you don’t have testing available, you really have to be cautious starting now to make sure you don’t bring it home,» says Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And remember, «any form of travel involves some amount of risk,» she says. «Just relying on testing alone is not enough.»

There are 13 days until Thanksgiving and the virus’ incubation period ranges from about 5 to 14 days. «If you were to be exposed any time, starting now, you could be infectious at the time that you go home for Thanksgiving,» Smith says.

Getting tested once doesn’t mean you won’t test positive for the virus a day later, she says. So the best defense for students — and the family planning to welcome them in — is to limit activities to the essentials.

«No parties obviously,» says Smith and «limit your social circles to only the people in your bubble and keep that bubble small.»


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Wear masks, keep your distance and rethink that turkey dinner

Students should stay masked up after they return home, says epidemiologist Guzman-Cottrill.

«The only time they should be removing their mask should be when they are eating and eating in a separate room, I think is the safest decision, or eating outdoors,» she says.

And while it may seem like this takes the joy out of the holiday, with the virus surging across the country the extra precautions are worth taking, our experts say.

«The last thing we want is big family gatherings that end up being somebody’s last Thanksgiving,» Smith says.

And there are all sorts of things that you can do outdoors with your family that are safer than meals, says Smith.

«You could play outside, you could play croquet or bocce quite safely. You can play cornhole with your family safely outdoors,» she says.

Outdoor activities are safer because airflow helps dilute the virus, thus reducing the risk of infection.

The Sislo-Schutta family usually gathers with at least 20 friends and family members at their home, but this year it will be just immediate family and they’re planning to do Thanksgiving dinner round the fire pit.

And there will be one more big change this year — they won’t be having a turkey!

«The new plan is to make spinach lasagna,» Brianna’s mom says. «It’s going to be a lasagna Thanksgiving.»

That’s fine with Brianna. «I’m honestly not a huge Thanksgiving food person,» she says. «I just enjoy spending time with my family.»

  • holiday travel
  • coronavirus on campus
  • COVID-19
  • college students
  • Thanksgiving travel

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