Spring Break Conundrum: Stay Home or Travel?

With COVID-19 cases growing abroad and at home, some U.S. colleges are urging students, faculty and staff to ditch personal travel plans, while other institutions are requiring those that do travel to report possible exposure to the coronavirus.

March 11, 2020
Travelers at Bangkok International Airport in Feb.

As the coronavirus has spread to additional countries and American states, many colleges and universities are continuing to cancel all institutionally sponsored international travel, and some are restricting domestic travel by air. But the arrival of spring break at campuses across the United States will likely present new logistical, and possibly health, challenges for these institutions, as significant numbers of students, faculty and staff travel independently, leaving colleges reliant on them to self-report possible exposure to the virus.

As a result, a wave of universities have announced plans to shift instruction online after the spring vacation, and some colleges -- including Harvard University and Amherst College in Massachusetts -- have asked students not to return to campus after the break and to complete their classes remotely. Other institutions have urged students to reconsider traveling during the break.

Amherst's president, Biddy Martin, noted the risk posed by students traveling for break in announcing the decision to move to remote learning after spring break.

"We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it," she wrote. "The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great."

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., which returned from spring break this week, announced Monday that it was canceling instruction for the remainder of the week and shifting courses online through March 30 after "several students returned to campus who have since reported being exposed to an individual who tested positive today for COVID-19."

Earlier in the week, Vanderbilt had sent out a message asking students to comply with self-reporting and self-isolation requirements and saying disciplinary procedures would be used as a stick of sorts to encourage compliance.

“Any student not complying with Vanderbilt’s notification and self-isolation practices will be subject to immediate disciplinary procedures through Student Accountability,” Mark Bandas, the associate provost and dean of students, wrote in a message to the campus Sunday. “If at any time we determine that you have failed to comply with a self-isolation directive that has applied to you, furnished false information to the University, or not reported complete and accurate information about your travel and personal contacts (or the travel and personal contacts of others), you may face major disciplinary action, up to and including separation from the University.”

A Vanderbilt spokesman declined to comment on the specific policies under which students could potentially face disciplinary action, or how Vanderbilt intends to enforce it. He said updates will be shared on the university's dedicated coronavirus website.

Some colleges are asking students, staff and faculty to consider canceling personal travel and are trying to track where individuals go. Spelman College in Atlanta is among those institutions asking students to register their spring break travel inside or outside the U.S. on a university website.

"While we have not historically asked any member of our community to register personal travel, we strongly encourage all students, faculty, and staff to register, as the path of the Coronavirus is fast moving," the college says on its website.

The situation is very fluid. Last week. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday issued a statement discouraging personal international travel -- including spring break travel -- and providing instructions on mandatory reporting to countries flagged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for having high rates of viral transmission. On Tuesday, MIT instructed undergraduates not to return after spring break and said courses will be delivered remotely for the remainder of the semester. It is one of a number of universities -- including Cornell University, in New York; Rutgers University, in New Jersey; and Youngstown State University, in Ohio -- that are using the arrival of spring break as an opportunity to transition to remote instruction.

For those colleges that haven't made that transition (at least not yet), they are relying on a combination of self-reporting, awareness and education to mitigate risks associated with personal travel.

James R. Jacobs, a member of the American College Health Association's COVID-19 task force and the executive director of Stanford University's Vaden Health Center, said that while universities are dependent on self-reporting of personal travel, "our goal is well-informed collaboration, where all parties are committed to minimizing risk to individuals and communities."

"Corralling, or even knowing about, personal travel is a challenge," Jacobs said. "A recommended strategy is to use the college’s resources to track and communicate risks and risk-mitigation strategies. To a large extent, we depend on the intellectual integrity and personal ethics of our university travelers to do the right thing."

As for whether colleges should use their disciplinary procedures to enforce compliance with coronavirus-related policies, Jacobs said his position "is to acknowledge that most forms of public health intervention, such as self-isolation, are best achieved when all parties are acting with transparency and with consideration for self and community. This requires a lot of communication and mutual respect. In most jurisdictions, quarantines and other far-reaching public health interventions can be enforced only by public health officials."

Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer of Healix International, a company that provides international medical, security and travel assistance services to colleges and other organizations, said he thinks it will be more effective to appeal to students’ goodwill and ability to make sensible decisions than to tell them they can't travel.

“Ask the students to think about the next few weeks and to think about what’s the sensible thing to do and can you survive without going abroad? Can you survive without doing it this once in a situation where you think about yourself, you think about your fellow students? People must assume that once there is a case in their college, it affects everyone,” Hyzler said. He noted that students should be aware of the risk the illness poses to elderly relatives and friends as well.

Many colleges have language on their websites urging students be aware of the risks of personal travel.

Administrators at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., on Friday sent a message to the campus strongly recommending that all members of the university community reconsider any personal plans to travel internationally. Georgetown has suspended all university-sponsored international travel through May 15.

"Everyone should be aware of the associated risk of disruptions to their reentry to the United States or other countries. Based on the quickly evolving international travel guidance, your return to the United States or to campus may be interrupted by federal or state restrictions," the message states.

A message last Friday from Tufts University, in Massachusetts, announced restrictions on university-sponsored travel and also noted concerns about personal travel.

"While the University cannot restrict personal travel, we recommend monitoring CDC warnings and avoiding both domestic and international destinations where COVID-19 is prevalent," the message says.

Henry Oliver, the director of global advancement at West Virginia University, said his institution is focused on educating the campus about the risks of traveling.

"We’ve done some communications that have gone out to the university community that say with the upcoming spring break, take precautions. A lot of it is common sense." He said the precautions include information such as hand-washing protocols. The university has also made information available about how to seek medical care through student health services.

West Virginia does not have a system in place by which students can register their personal travel with the university.

“There’s no way realistically for us to track what everyone is doing personally,” Oliver said. “We just feel that education and awareness are the absolute best remedies that we have at our disposal.”

Andrea Bordeau, a member of the executive committee of PULSE, an association of professionals focused on health and safety in academic travel, and manager of global safety and security at Vanderbilt, said that “all universities are in this together.”

“Institutions of higher education and the larger community as a whole must rely on thoughtful and careful self-reporting that considers the vulnerable members of our communities,” Bordeau said. “We all need to look beyond ourselves right now and remember that age is not the only indicator for risk. Civic engagement is something many of our students are passionate about, and this situation has offered an opportunity for us to consider the implications of our choices and how to best care for our community.”


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