American academia goes home for the holidays: will this contribute to the pandemic’s spread?

It’s late November and American higher education is winding up fall classes.  Traditionally this is when many residential students head home for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Now we’re also seeing a growing number of colleges and universities ending in-person classes earlier than usual, as a response to COVID-19’s escalation.

Will these campuses contribute to the pandemic’s spread?

Let me explain this disturbing question.

Lilah Burke has an important Inside Higher Ed column exploring just how campuses are structuring the holiday in epidemic terms.  Listen closely to how she describes the process:

Several colleges and universities have responded by creating plans to test students for COVID-19 before they leave for the break. (In many cases, students who leave are discouraged from coming back until the next term.) But those plans vary widely, and what’s more, many colleges and universities have none at all. [emphases added]

A Davidson College student agrees with Burke’s finding:

“When you consider the thousands of U.S. institutions that exist, really we’ve only found a handful [with exit plans],” said Emily Round, a senior at Davidson College and co-chief of operations at Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative…

On the one hand, a small group of colleges and universities are mandating testing for these students aiming to travel home, like Northern Arizona University and Notre Dame.  On the other hand, a majority are not doing this. Student Emily Round again: “At the College Crisis Initiative, a random sample of 100 institutions yielded only eight exit-testing plans…”  8%.

In other words, it seems that most American campuses are sending students home without checking them for COVID-19.  They may well travel through scenes like this one from the Phoenix Airport, crammed with fliers:

As students work their ways through airports, bus stations, rental car facilities, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. on the way home, how many other people will they infect?

Burke reports that a group of northeastern state governors have already recognized the campus-driven pandemic problem.  They called for institutions to get more students tested.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Delaware Governor John Carney, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker today announced they will encourage residential colleges and universities in their respective states to provide testing for all students traveling home for Thanksgiving break to the maximum extent possible before they leave campus. Any student who tests positive will be encouraged to isolate on campus before they can travel or detail arrangements of their safe travel home with the local department of health. These efforts will help mitigate the threat of college students returning home for the holidays importing COVID-19 into their communities.

So why are these efforts not being accomplished?  My readers will recognize the reason I so often raise: financial pressures.

The American College Health Association is currently not recommending that institutions test every student before departure. That level of testing is resource-intensive, officials there have said, and the association did not want to recommend something cash-strapped colleges could not carry out.

Remember that many colleges and universities have suffered serious budget hits in 2020.

I don’t want readers to walk away with a sense that mandating testing would be easy.  Those financial barriers are steep.  I wonder how many administrators found themselves weighing a choice: laying off (more) staff and/or faculty, or doing full-scale holiday testing?  Moreover, there’s the practical challenge of getting students who live off campus to comply.  Think about folks living in apartments, Greek houses, co-ops, shared houses, friends’ couches, and so on.  Not easy to wrangle.

It’s not just governors and Inside Higher Ed seeing this happening.  Over at the Wall Street Journal Doug Belkin (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) sounds an alarm:

Hundreds of thousands of college students are poised to leave campuses next week and travel home without taking a Covid-19 test, creating a significant health risk in their hometowns.

Belkin heads to Davidson as well:

“Any institution that is not doing exit testing right now has the potential to be a time bomb,” [Chris Marsicano, an educational-studies professor at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative] said. “They are likely contributing to an incredible increase across the country.”

Part of the problem is people hosting the virus but not showing any effects of its presence:

People in their teens and 20s are among the most likely to carry the virus and not know it unless they are tested, because many young people who are infected are asymptomatic. “This is a big issue,” said Sen Pei, an infectious-disease modeler and associate research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Young people have been the drivers of transmission in the U.S.”

If Belkin, Burke, and their sources are correct, one tough question arises.  Just how much worse will academia make the pandemic, due to these widespread policies?  At its worse, will college and university residential student policies causes a superspreader event this winter?

Once more, these questions are predicated on several contingencies: the actual virus presence among residential students, student travel behavior, what students do when they get home, and more.  But we must consider the possibility that one outcome involves speeding COVID-19’s spread through the population.  And then the timeline starts to become clear:

some of the people who are infected on Thanksgiving will enter the hospital in the middle of December, and the morgue around Christmas.

Obviously this can yield terrible results.  Some people may die as a result, especially older people with comorbidities. Those who survive getting the virus may endure tissue damage of various sorts, which could last for a while.

On a different level, how would such a residential student spread impact higher education’s reputation?  In October I asked readers to consider this in light of various stories, events, and actions in and around academia.  What will Americans and people in other nations think of institutions that failed to take obvious steps to reduce COVID’s spread?  What will be the impact of deaths that result in December?

Let’s look ahead to 2021, starting at the micro level.  Assume some number of families members suffer and/or die as a result of the virus appearing in-house, thanks to campuses not restricting its spread.  Will surviving family member feel pleased to pay tuition and other university bills coming due?  How will the students process their guilt?

At a broader level, recall the earlier point about students interacting with other travelers on their way home.  To the extent that local authorities conduct contract tracing, they will likely identify students as spreaders.  Beyond contact tracing, popular opinion might start assigning blame on those traveling students anyway.

How will this viral spread impact several public policy debates, such as forgiving student debt, funding public universities, or reauthorizing the Higher Education Act?

Listen to Lilah Burke’s concluding lines:

[S]ome of the risk associated with students going home to families is out of the hands of colleges and universities. Administrations cannot control how students travel, what precautions they take on the journey or whether they quarantine once they arrive at home.

But for the little that is in their control, it’s evident some colleges are unwilling or unable exercise their power.

I hope that doesn’t turn out to be true.

(thanks to my dear wife for links and conversation)



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8 Responses to American academia goes home for the holidays: will this contribute to the pandemic’s spread?

  1. Pam Mack says:

    Living in a college town I worry more about those students who are coming back to their apartments after Thanksgiving even though classes and exams are online after Thanksgiving. Clemson is asking students to get tested before Thanksgiving and has added additional testing but the wording in several messages doesn’t say why. Are they so afraid of this outcome that they don’t want to say get tested before you go home to keep your family safe?

  2. Kathy Pitman says:

    Part of the problem with any testing strategy revolves around timing. If someone is exposed today and gets tested tomorrow, they will likely receive negative results which leads to a false sense of security. You can also have someone tested today and get exposed and infected tomorrow. There are many examples of articles ( ( that recommend testing students EVERY TWO DAYS which is almost impossible – financially and logistically.

  3. We made it with face-to-face classes all the way to the end. We offered and strongly encouraged departure testing. One unfortunate side effect was asymptomatic students were surprised to learn they had it and were told by the health department that they can’t go home for the holidays due to quarantine (they’ll go home when they complete). This is a good public health decision of course, but is vexing to the students and their families.

    We offered all classes with online options for every class session to accommodate students going in and out of quarantine, and I had a handful who chose to voluntarily isolate the last two weeks out of fear of going home and infecting fragile relatives.

  4. Roxann says:

    For peace of mind, I needed to search for a college(s) or university (s) that seem to have a handle on some of this. And I found that Bard College should be considered in this manner.

    Just because I’m looking a silver lining somewhere in higher ed…

    Bryan, Thanks for an another excellent article!!!

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