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College students who traveled to popular spring break destinations likely contributed to the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses and in surrounding communities, a recent study suggests.

Looking at university vacation dates, cellphone data and reported COVID-19 cases, researchers propose that students who flew to New York City or Florida for spring break contributed more to COVID-19 spread than the average student.

“To inform the immediate policy discussion, our results imply that universities can play an important role in containing further COVID-19 spread,” wrote the study authors. “Our results suggest that reducing long-distance student travel can reduce COVID-19 spread both within the university and for higher-risk individuals in the surrounding county.”

Some institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame, plan to start their fall semester early to avoid students traveling home for Thanksgiving and then returning to campus. It may be a good idea for other institutions to do the same, the authors suggest.

“Additionally, reducing long-distance student travel outside of scheduled breaks, such as restricting travel for college sports, may help to mitigate infection risk. Although non-pharmaceutical interventions are typically implemented by state and local governments, universities have the power to make targeted decisions that affect the behavior of nearly 8 million undergraduates,” the study says.

The research paper, authored by economists Daniel Mangrum at Vanderbilt University and Paul Niekamp at Ball State University, was published on SSRN in late May. SSRN is an open-access preprint platform for the social sciences and humanities. Papers published on SSRN often reflect early-stage research that has not yet been peer reviewed.

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