Thanksgiving marks a mass exodus of college students leaving campuses like UW Madison

Now thousands of University of Wisconsin students are making getaway plans, part of a mass

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 more than 4,700 students have tested positive this fall, officials urged preholiday testing and caution at every step of their travels. “Though you may head home with a negative test result, your COVID-19 status could change as you are interacting with others and celebrating the holidays,” the university told students. Ohio State ended most of its in-person teaching Friday evening.

In North Carolina, Duke University is testing 2,500 students a day, seven days a week, as the holiday approaches, said Thomas Denny, professor of medicine and chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. The university has had fewer than 150 positive cases among students this semester. The goal now is to identify infections, trace contacts and quarantine those who were exposed, Denny said, “so we won’t send people back to their home communities positive.” Duke’s semester wraps up just before Thanksgiving.

At the University of Georgia, surveillance testing doubled in the two weeks before Thanksgiving to 1,000 people a day. Officials asked students to consider quarantining for two weeks before heading home and for two weeks more once there. Classes and exams will be held online after the holiday. Since August, the university has logged more than 3,600 positive cases among students. “Stay Georgia strong/Dawg strong,” officials urged, appealing to their school spirit with a nod to the Bulldog mascot.

Clemson University in South Carolina began testing all students on campus every week in early October. Dorms are at normal capacity. More than 4,900 students have tested positive since June. Most cases have been mild or asymptomatic; school officials aren’t aware of any that required hospitalization.

“You must test — the virus is with us, whether we pretend like it is or not,” said Corey Kalbaugh, an assistant professor of public health sciences who is the school’s lead epidemiologist. “At Clemson, we haven’t pretended.”

For Thanksgiving, he said, “I would be far more worried if we weren’t testing. . . . The virus is what it is. You can never catch 100 percent of positive cases, but we’ll try to catch every one we can before we send students home to their families.” Clemson, like Wisconsin and many other schools, is finishing the semester remotely after the holiday.

Here in Madison, the state’s flagship university of 44,000 students is requiring those who live on campus to get tested before the holiday and encouraging those who live off campus to do so as well. To meet the demand, officials added testing times on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The university had a rocky start to the semester as viral cases spiked in early September. The school imposed a temporary quarantine on two large dorms and paused face-to-face teaching for two weeks. Those measures, coupled with ramped-up viral testing, helped stabilize operations, said Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In all, the university counts more than 4,200 positive viral tests among its students since the summer and more than 370 among employees. Those cases have led to one hospitalization, officials say, and no deaths. The university has set aside rooms in hotels and dorms to isolate those in campus housing who get infected and quarantine those who may have been exposed to the virus.

“We’re doing okay,” Blank said in a videoconference interview. “We have kept the campus reasonably safe from a health perspective. We’ve had no evidence of transmissions in our classrooms or laboratories.” That finding is echoed at many other schools.

In this regimented fall, Blank laments the loss of community rituals — the pep rallies with the Bucky the Badger mascot, and the afternoon crowds that would soak in sun and the sweeping vistas of Lake Mendota from the terrace of Memorial Union.

Some local authorities contend the university catalyzed regional health troubles when it opened dorms and classrooms in September. “There was a great surge in cases,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. “It began on campus. There’s nothing that separates the campus from the greater community.”

Parisi, a Wisconsin graduate, is also the father of a student at the university. “If I had my druthers, it would all be virtual,” he said.

Blank disputes Parisi’s view. Positivity rates for the university’s viral testing, she said, are lower than rates for the county and the state. Even if the dorms had been closed, many thousands of undergraduates were living in apartments off campus. Opening the campus enabled the university to promote public health, she said. “If we simply were closed,” Blank said, “we would have no control whatsoever over their behaviors.”

Roughly 30 percent of classes this fall have had at least some face-to-face instruction. All courses with 50 or more students are remote. Much of the same teaching plan, with expanded viral testing, is expected in the spring term.

Professors are divided over the university’s strategy. Some say it would have been better for the health of students and the community to be entirely virtual from the start.

“It’s a mess,” said Sami Schalk, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies. “It’s been a hard semester and really scary.” Schalk said the stress on students, including those who hold part-time jobs in the city, has been enormous. While Schalk chose to teach her three courses remotely, she said some faculty have felt pressured to teach in person. She said she wants to return to the classroom when the conditions are right — and not before. “We just have to adapt to our moment and let go a little bit,” Schalk said.

Harry Brighouse, a professor of philosophy, teaches three face-to-face courses but totes a laptop around the classroom to help certain students who must participate online through video links. Those who can be there in person value the experience, he said, and are probably more risk-averse in their behavior. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘I’d be going to parties if I didn’t have an in-person class. It’s not worth it to me to jeopardize that,’ ” Brighouse said. He said he is “so grateful that it’s worked out.”

One afternoon last week, Brighouse donned a face mask to lead a class on the obligations of parents to children. More than 20 students joined him in a large circular lecture room, sitting at desks that appeared carefully spaced apart. In many ways, it seemed a lively but routine academic occasion. There was give and take, analysis of moral issues, small-group discussion of case studies. What was unusual: the Zoom connection for several remote students and the muffling effect that masks had on everyone’s speech. Brighouse concentrates on projecting his voice, getting students to speak up and keeping all engaged wherever they are. “Definitely requires more energy,” Brighouse said. “But it works.”

For Hannah Bounds, 20, a junior from Racine, Wis., this is her only in-person class. Hands down, she said, it is the academic highlight of her fall. Her remote courses often feel like a struggle in figuring out how to teach herself. “I’m not getting what I should out of those,” she said.

Bounds has felt the strain of the pandemic semester. She is a “house fellow” in a dorm, which means she lives with and helps guide freshmen through their first months of campus life. “First and foremost, it is kind of scary,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s scary to see residents test positive and know that I share the same living space.”

Every Monday, Bounds takes a viral test. So far, they have all been negative. She worries about the possibility of infecting her father, a motorcycle mechanic, or her mother, a medical-imaging technologist. But she plans to go home for Thanksgiving and afterward return to Madison to help the dorm wind down for any residents who remain through the end of the semester.

Yannis Pandiscas, 20, a junior from Aurora, Ill., hasn’t taken any viral tests since the semester started — “although I really probably should,” he said. He lives alone in a Madison apartment, studies mostly online, works out at a gymnasium, and shops and cooks for himself. He has no Thanksgiving getaway plan. He’ll stay here. His mother is immunocompromised, he said, and his father works in a casino.

“I am a little concerned for my family,” he said. “I can’t really know if I’ve been infected.” Even if he gets tested here and has a negative result, Pandiscas worries he could get the virus while riding a bus home. “I don’t want to bring it back,” he said.

Hannah Alpert, 19, a sophomore from Mill Valley, Calif., went home briefly in October to avoid a possible virus outbreak in her sorority house. Soon after she returned to Madison, she caught the virus herself. The sorority was not to blame, she said. There were no parties, and residents were careful to wear masks. After her positive test, Alpert went to a hotel room to isolate. Her symptoms are mild: She feels “run down,” she said, and has lost some sense of taste and smell.

“I do not want to expose my parents and sister in any sense,” Alpert said. But she has no regrets about coming here. “This semester has definitely been worth it,” she said. “By no means has it been easy. I couldn’t have predicted what happened, especially that I have coronavirus.”

Her mother feels the same. Madison was where her daughter wanted and needed to be this fall, Suzanne Alpert said. “She found her place last year, thriving academically and thriving socially,” the mother said. “So we decided to take the risk of letting her go back if she felt brave enough to go for it.”

Last week, the family was counting the days until Hannah could fly safely. “She won’t come home until we’re very sure that she’s not contagious,” Suzanne Alpert said.

With the virus surging, some students were reshuffling plans and leaving the week before Thanksgiving.

“Covid was getting a little crazy,” Olivia Moffitt said. “So I decided to come home early.” Moffitt, 18, a freshman from Chevy Chase, Md., said some students in her dorm had tested positive, and she didn’t want to risk getting exposed and then stuck in a Madison quarantine.

“It was mostly a personal choice, but my parents were definitely on board with it,” she said. Moffitt proclaimed herself happy with the first-year experience so far even though all her classes were online. “It was nice to meet new people, get out of my comfort zone and have a sense of normalcy,” she said. She spoke over the phone from the basement of her family house, quarantining there as she awaited results from yet another viral test.

Svrluga reported from Washington.

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