Patchwork of COVID Thanksgiving Protocols

Depending on where they go to college, students returning from the holiday break might face required testing, extended mask mandates, online classes—or no mitigation measures at all.

November 24, 2021
 
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Some campuses are requiring COVID-19 testing for students returning from Thanksgiving break.

All Bowdoin College students returning from Thanksgiving break will be required to take an observed antigen COVID test, even if they didn’t travel anywhere. Students will pick up the tests on campus and self-administer them while being observed online through eMed, an at-home COVID-19 rapid antigen test service that makes sure students are conducting the test properly. Then eMed uploads the results to the Bowdoin dashboard, said Mike Ranen, associate dean of student affairs and director of residential and student life. In addition, on Monday or Tuesday, all Bowdoin students, faculty and staff will be required to take a PCR test, which they’ve been doing twice a week since the start of the semester.

“The regular testing has been kind of a cornerstone,” Ranen said. “If we can find the case early in its trajectory, we’ll be able to isolate to stop the spread, and we’ve seen this work well on our campus.”

Currently, Bowdoin has one active student COVID-19 cases and three staff cases. Since the start of the fall semester, the institution has recorded 13 employee cases and 75 cases among the 1,948 students on campus.

“​​Because we have very low numbers of COVID on campus and because we are able to test frequently, we believe that we are able to stop any outbreak,” Ranen said. “We feel that we’re able to finish the semester in person.”

Not all campuses have such strict post-Thanksgiving protocols. In fact, compared to last year, when some institutions refused to let students leave for the holiday and others ended the semester early, not letting them return until January, administrators seem relatively untroubled by the prospect of a spike in COVID-19 cases after the holiday. While a handful of institutions are requiring tests for students returning from the break, many more are simply recommending them; others aren’t saying anything at all. A rare few are moving to online instruction after the break, which was a common approach last year, before most students were vaccinated.

To be sure, the country is in a very different place than it was last Thanksgiving. Hundreds of campuses have implemented vaccine and/or masking protocols, and most have returned to full dorms, in-person instruction and vibrant social events. But the virus hasn’t disappeared, and Thanksgiving break, when students typically travel to see family and friends, provides the perfect opportunity for transmission, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association COVID-19 task force. Institutions need to remain alert for outbreaks.

“As we move indoors, as the weather gets colder, and as our vaccination rates continue to be less than optimal, you have to have some level of concern and be very vigilant and watch whether those cases are going to increase or not,” Barkin said.

In some parts of the country, vaccination rates are lagging, Barkin said, so she recommends that institutions focus on promoting shots and testing students, faculty and staff returning from the break.

“Institutions can’t control the holiday activities and celebrations that students will be involved in,” Barkin said. “So encouraging testing, either pre-arrival testing or on-arrival testing on campus, allows institutions to have some sense that the people who are returning to campus are not positive for COVID-19.”

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Additionally, Barkin noted institutions should provide safety guidance for students who are traveling, reminding them to wear a mask on public transportation and not to travel if they are exposed to COVID, feel sick or test positive. She also suggested students check infection rates at their travel destinations and make plans with their families ahead of time to protect high-risk Thanksgiving guests.

On top of COVID-19, colleges and universities should also be worried about the flu, Barkin said. Some institutions have already experienced early outbreaks of influenza; at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, nearly 530 students have been diagnosed with the flu since early October.

“You want to get vaccinated for the flu and for COVID-19,” Barkin said. “And you can do that on the same day. So even if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but haven’t had a flu shot, you should go get one.”

In addition to Bowdoin, George Mason University in Virginia is requiring students who live on campus to get tested after returning from break. Emerson College in Massachusetts is making every student complete a COVID-19 rapid test at home within 48 hours of their return to campus, said Erik Muurisepp, associate vice president for campus life.

“If they’ve been exposed or tested positive, they should not come back to campus until they reach out to their health-care provider,” Muurisepp said. “This just allows us one additional layer of mitigation to help keep our community safe as folks are going to be traveling back to campus.”

Muurisepp said the college is currently distributing at-home test kits through residential staff and two campus offices before students depart for the holiday. Two days before they return, they must complete the at-home test, observed by a telehealth provider. They can’t come back to campus until they post a negative result through the Emerson app.

“We’ve entered that phase of the pandemic where we have to learn how to live alongside the virus,” Muurisepp said. “And so while I fully believe in our PCR testing that we have weekly, this is also the first approach of providing at-home rapid tests, which hopefully becomes more of our typical norm in our daily lives.”

Since fall 2020, Emerson has tested students, faculty and staff weekly, regardless of their vaccination status, Muurisepp said. Vaccinations were required for all students coming to campus this fall. Faculty and staff aren’t required to do the at-home rapid test before they return from Thanksgiving, he said, but they are still required to do weekly PCR tests.

Some institutions are not requiring but recommending that students get tested before and after they travel for the holiday, including American University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Vermont. The University of Michigan is recommending the campus community get tested “before or after” traveling for the upcoming Thanksgiving break. The university partnered with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide free, pop-up, rapid antigen testing on campus Nov. 18 to 20 in anticipation of holiday travel. All students, faculty and staff at Michigan are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

A handful of colleges—including Edward Waters University in Florida, Sierra Nevada University in Nevada and Itawamba Community College in Mississippi—made the decision to switch to online instruction after the break as a cautionary step to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. Even before Thanksgiving, the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts made a last-minute transition to remote learning due to a spike in cases. The college canceled classes on Thursday, Nov. 18, so faculty could prepare to move to remote instruction Friday, and classes remained online only up to the Thanksgiving break. In-person learning is scheduled to resume on Monday, Nov. 29. Throughout the fall semester, Berklee students have been required to get tested once a week, and a college spokesperson said it’s recommending students get tested before they return to campus.

The University of Texas at Austin, which doesn’t have a mask or vaccine requirement for students, seems to be delivering a muddled message. The university sent an email recommending that students get tested for COVID-19 “within 72 hours prior to traveling or gathering and again within 72 hours after you return to campus” to help the university “finish out the semester with continued low rates of transmission and protect friends and family in other communities.”

But then the email goes on to remind students that “testing before or after the holiday weekend is not required,” nor do they need to upload test results, as they did at the start of the fall semester. At the same time, students should be more vigilant about practicing masking, social distancing and hand hygiene when visiting unvaccinated or high-risk people, the email notes.

The University of Wyoming, which doesn’t have a vaccine mandate for students, extended its indoor mask requirement into December because of holiday travel. The mask mandate will be revisited at a Dec. 15 teleconference meeting with the Board of Trustees, the university said in its announcement.

“Our indoor mask requirement has helped us have a traditional fall semester without a spike in COVID cases, and we appreciate the willingness of our community members to do their part by complying,” President Ed Seidel said in a statement. “It will be important for us to maintain a high level of compliance before and after the Thanksgiving break so that we can complete a successful semester.”

Chad Baldwin, associate vice president for marketing and communications, said that while some trustees voted against extending the indoor mask requirement, there was a “feeling” that masks helped keep COVID-19 cases down during the fall.

“We’ve been able to be in person this semester, which we would say has been a traditional semester, and we think masks have played a role in helping us do that without having a big spike in cases,” Baldwin said. “And so the feeling was ‘Let’s try to finish off the semester, successfully,’ and this may help us do that.”

Since the start of the semester, 3 percent of University of Wyoming students, faculty and employees have participated in random-sample COVID-19 testing each week. As of Nov. 22, there were 24 active student cases and six employee cases. According to the university’s dashboard, 42.9 percent of students and 66 percent of employees are vaccinated.

Baldwin said on top of the indoor mask requirement, the university has been recommending vaccines for students and testing when they travel. Baldwin noted that Albany County, where the university is located, remains in the Wyoming Department of Health’s “moderate-high transmission levels” category for COVID-19.

“We feel like we’ve had pretty good compliance,” Baldwin said. “I mean, it’s not been perfect. You see the case numbers and feel like if we drop our guard, it could get back to where we were last fall—which was not pleasant for anybody.”

Barkin, from ACHA, said even though there are vaccines and more COVID-19 tests available, people should still be cautious.

“We have lots of tools in the toolbox—we just need to continue to use them,” Barkin said. “This pandemic has gone on for a long time, and there’s some pandemic fatigue, and rays of hope, as cases have declined, that have made people feel more relaxed … But we need to be vigilant and watch those numbers.”

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