Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Do Colleges And Students Ensure Safety Of Traveling Home For Thanksgiving?


Coronavirus cases are surging throughout the country at exactly the same time college students are nearing Thanksgiving break and, for many, the end of their first semester. Going home is a lot more complicated this year. So how do students navigate the transition without bringing the virus with them? NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports on how colleges and students are trying to answer that question.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Home is just 20 minutes from campus for Brianna Sislo-Scutta, a third-year at the University of Minnesota.

BRIANNA SISLO-SCUTTA: That was one of the reason, like, I wanted to go to a school in my home state. I love my family. I love spending time with them.

NADWORNY: But she's forgone the weekend trips home this semester, afraid she might get her parents sick. Thanksgiving seemed more important to be home, which has meant some hard conversations about what that might look like.

SISLO-SCUTTA: I think it's...

TONI SCUTTA: Oh, you can...

SISLO-SCUTTA: No, go ahead.

NADWORNY: I talked with Brianna and her mom, Toni Scutta (ph), about this.

SCUTTA: You know, as a mom, it's just gut-wrenching. Can I be inside with my child? If so, for how long?

NADWORNY: They both want to make it work, but they know there are risks. With two weeks until Thanksgiving, a lot of families are thinking about this. At school, Brianna has three roommates who see their boyfriends, go to class and work.

SCUTTA: As careful as Brianna can be, it also depends upon this whole chain of other people.

SISLO-SCUTTA: I can't, like, force my roommates to not go to work.

NADWORNY: But Brianna says they'll do their best to limit their activities. And she plans to get tested. The University of Minnesota is offering free coronavirus testing.

SISLO-SCUTTA: Definitely it makes a little less scary for me. I can go home, feel a little bit better and have a little bit more peace of mind.

NADWORNY: Not all students have access to testing. According to analysis from the College Crisis Initiative, many colleges are not providing exit testing ahead of students' departure. Some don't even have a plan. Vanderbilt University is among the handful of schools that do have a clear exit strategy.

DANIEL DIERMEIER: It's kind of like the last phase of our semester.

NADWORNY: That's the school's chancellor, Daniel Diermeier. Part of their strategy is to require all undergrads to take a test before heading home.

DIERMEIER: We're doing the exit testing not only for us, but we're doing it, you know, from the point of view of making sure that the families and the communities where the students go to feel good about their students returning home.

NADWORNY: Not all colleges have the resources for exit testing, so many are encouraging students to essentially lock down for the two weeks ahead of Thanksgiving.

BECKY SMITH: If you don't have testing available, you really have to be cautious, starting now, to make sure that you don't bring COVID home.

NADWORNY: Becky Smith is an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says even exit testing has limitations. The best defense for students is to limit activities to just the essentials.

SMITH: No parties, obviously, but limit your social circles to only the people within your bubble, and keep that bubble small.

NADWORNY: And the timing is really important.

SMITH: Start now.

NADWORNY: Because there are just two weeks until the holiday, the same time frame as the virus's incubation period. When it comes to Thanksgiving Day, Smith has some suggestions. Keep it small. Be outside. Wear masks. And instead of a meal where you take your mask off to eat, try a game.

SMITH: You can play cornhole with your family safely outdoors.

NADWORNY: For the Sislo-Scutta family in the suburbs of St. Paul, it will be just immediate family and a new location.

SCUTTA: We're going to do Thanksgiving around the fire pit if we can (laughter).

NADWORNY: And there will be one more big change. Mom Toni breaks the news to Brianna.

SCUTTA: My husband and I decided not to do a turkey. Sorry, B (laughter).

NADWORNY: The new plan is to make spinach lasagna - might as well lean in to different traditions.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.