Now thousands of University of Wisconsin students are making getaway plans, part of a mass pre-Thanksgiving exodus from campuses nationwide that could spread the dangerous pathogen in hometowns across the country if students and schools aren’t careful.
Maggie Pidto is careful. The 21-year-old Wisconsin senior stopped by the Kohl Center arena one recent afternoon to swab inside her nose for a viral test that came back negative, her seventh of the semester. She planned to do it again the next day to get ready for her trip home to West Hartford, Conn. She wants to protect her parents.
The virus infected one of her roommates this fall, who then had to isolate in their off-campus apartment. But so far, Pidto has dodged infection. “I’m constantly stressed about it,” she said.
Thanksgiving has become a pivotal moment for higher education as the pandemic intensifies. It casts a spotlight not only on the risk of student travel plans, but also on how a wildly unpredictable semester has unfolded and what might happen next.
Many schools that brought large numbers of students back to campus are dispersing them for the rest of the year — discouraging back-and-forth holiday travel — and pondering how much they can resume operations in January. Faculty are debating the wisdom of housing students and teaching in person under such challenging conditions.
Students are weighing how to keep their education on track and stay safe. But they also are tired of masks, social distancing and other restrictions as they approach a holiday known for gatherings of friends and family.
That exhaustion worries medical experts as the national death toll from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, has surpassed 250,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Thursday that college students traveling home should be treated as “overnight guests” and take appropriate precautions. But many are unlikely to take the rigorous quarantine steps that public health experts advise.
“A lot of folks I think are reacting as if this is the last Thanksgiving we’ll ever have,” said Jill Foster, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Families with college students need to have honest conversations about risk, she said, and not let down their guard. “I say, ‘Picture Thanksgiving 2021, sitting around the table. We’ve had the vaccine. The pandemic is under better control. Who’s not going to be at that table because this year you’re not patient?’ ”
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said most college students who come home should be considered a potential carrier of contagion. That is true, he said, even if schools provide exit testing.
“If tests are available, that can somewhat decrease their risk, but it’s not ironclad,” Adalja said in a press briefing. “Think about who’s in your household. . . . Is this a multigenerational household, which has elderly people or individuals with high-risk conditions?”
At Ohio State University, where