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A College Student Is Coming Home. Should The Whole Family Wear Masks?

Sarah Gonzales for NPR

Sandy Kretschmer imagines her son Henry returning home from college, dropping his bags and then giving her a big hug. But she knows the reality of this homecoming may be a lot different.

"I'll probably have a mask on, and he'll have a mask on when I hug him," she says.

Henry plans to take a COVID-19 test a few days before he leaves Iowa State University where he's a junior, and he'll self-quarantine until he heads home to Chicago.

The Kretschmers are taking these precautions because some family members have underlying conditionsthat put them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. Henry's father has an autoimmune disease, and his 78-year-old grandfather is in hospice care.

Families all across the country are facing a similar dilemma: They want their students home for Thanksgiving, but no one wants the virus to come home with them.

"I want to make sure that I'm not bringing anything home to my parents, and I don't want them to get sick," says Brianna Sislo-Schutta,a junior at the University of Minnesota.

Home is just a 20-minute drive from campus, in the suburbs of St. Paul. "That's why I went to school in my home state," she says. "I love my family. I love spending time with them."

In normal years, she would go home often for a meal or a visit. This year she's forgone the weekend trips home — afraid she might get her parents sick. But Thanksgiving is a hard holiday to miss, which has meant some hard conversations about what the visit might look like.

"As a mother, it's just gut-wrenching," says Brianna's mom, Toni Schutta. "Can I be inside with my child? If so, for how long? Do we have to wear masks?" she asks.

Some students are choosing not to risk it and have decided to stay on campus for the holidays, says Amira Roess,an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"There are students who are choosing to stay in the dorms because they have family members who are high risk," she says.

Other experts agree: If a family member is especially vulnerable, the safest option is to celebrate lovingly — but remotely — this year. But for college students and their families who are considering spending Thanksgiving together, here are some precautions you can take to reduce the risk of spreading infections.

Get tested — but don't rely exclusively on test results

A few colleges are requiring students to get tested before they leave campus and head home.

"It's kind of like the last phase of our semester," says Daniel Diermeier,chancellor of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. He says the exit testing is to make sure that the families and the communities the students are returning to "feel good about their students coming home."

The State University of New York requires on-campus students to test negative beforeheading home for the break and Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina just announced the state will send rapid tests to colleges ahead of Thanksgiving. The University of Minnesota, where Brianna Sislo-Schutta is a junior, is also offering free coronavirus testing.

"I know testing isn't 100%, but it definitely makes it a little less scary for me. I can go home and feel better and have peace of mind," she says.

But remember a test is just a snapshot of the day it is taken, says Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. "One negative test does not mean that you are home free." And even if a test is negative, it's not a guarantee the person taking it is not infected.

She recommends students take another test when they get home, and in the meantime, they should stay masked up after they return home and keep 6 feet away from other family members.

Masks and social distancing may seem like they take all the warmth and humanity out of the holiday, but Guzman-Cottrill says any place where 5% or more COVID-19 tests return positive is a high-risk zone. Before traveling, students and parents should evaluate the rates of infection on campus and the surrounding community.

Not all colleges are offering students testing before they leave for the holidays. The College Crisis Initiativedid a random survey of about 100 four-year institutions and found that only eight were offering additional testing to students before the break.

"There's a sense, at least at some colleges, that once the semester finishes and students leave, it's not their problem," says Robert Kelchen,an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Seton Hall transitioned to online classes this week, amid a rising number COVID-19 cases on campus. The school is encouraging all students to get tested at the university health center before they head home.

Limit your social activities starting now

For colleges that don't have resources for exit testing, many are encouraging students to essentially lock down before heading out for Thanksgiving.

"If you don't have testing available, you really have to be cautious starting now to make sure you don't bring it home," says Rebecca Smith,an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And remember, "any form of travel involves some amount of risk," she says. "Just relying on testing alone is not enough."

There are 13 days until Thanksgiving and the virus' incubation period rangesfrom about five to 14 days. "If you were to be exposed any time, starting now, you could be infectious at the time that you go home for Thanksgiving," Smith says.

Getting tested once doesn't mean you won't test positive for the virus a day later, she says. So the best defense for students — and the family planning to welcome them in — is to limit activities to the essentials.

"No parties obviously," says Smith, and "limit your social circles to only the people in your bubble and keep that bubble small."

Wear masks, keep your distance and rethink that turkey dinner

Students should stay masked up after they return home, says epidemiologist Guzman-Cottrill.

"The only time they should be removing their mask should be when they are eating and eating in a separate room, I think, is the safest decision, or eating outdoors," she says.

And while it may seem like this takes the joy out of the holiday, with the virus surging across the country, the extra precautions are worth taking, our experts say.

"The last thing we want is big family gatherings that end up being somebody's last Thanksgiving," Smith says.

And there are all sorts of things that you can do outdoors with your family that are safer than meals, says Smith.

"You could play outside, you could play croquet or boccequite safely. You can play cornhole with your family safely outdoors," she says.

Outdoor activities are safer because airflow helps dilute the virus, thus reducing the risk of infection.

The Sislo-Schutta family usually gathers with at least 20 friends and family members at their home, but this year it will be just immediate family and they're planning to do Thanksgiving dinner around the fire pit.

And there will be one more big change this year — they won't be having a turkey!

"The new plan is to make spinach lasagna," Brianna's mom says. "It's going to be a lasagna Thanksgiving."

That's fine with Brianna. "I'm honestly not a huge Thanksgiving food person," she says. "I just enjoy spending time with my family."

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Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.