Q from Ellen from NYC: What do we do when college-age children come home at Thanksgiving? Should they come home?

Families Staying Safe Travel

A: “Come Home and Stay Home” or “Don’t Come Home” are your best options. Coming home just for the Thanksgiving holiday and then returning to campus is *not* a good plan.

Thanks to Ellen for voicing a common concern. Back in August, the big question for college kids was how they could return to campus safely. With Thanksgiving just 6 weeks away, now parents are wondering how to get Junior safely home.

Some of your options are clearly better than others from a COVID safety perspective. Before we go through those options, we want to highlight a common mental bias to which we are all susceptible: We underestimate the risk of getting COVID from people we know and love.

Dr. Deborah Birx (White House Coronavirus Task Force member) mentioned this in a recent speech at the Broad Institute in Boston (link below), as she noted increasing case counts in the Northeast that are likely driven by small gatherings of family and friends. “We take down our guard when we are with people we know,” Dr. Birx said. “And we assume if we know you, you couldn’t have COVID.”

With that in mind, what are the options?

Good options:

1. Come home for Thanksgiving and stay home: Many colleges have wisely built their fall calendar around this plan. On-campus residence and in-person classes (if any) will end before Thanksgiving, and the remainder of the term will take place remotely. If your college kid is on this plan, you have time to build in a 10-14 day self-quarantine at home, with a test on Day 5-7 if possible. Note that even if your kid is tested regularly on campus, their last negative test is only informative about possible infection up to several days *before* the testing date (see linked post below about testing timelines and the White House cluster). If Junior is still quarantining on Thanksgiving Day, SMART rules apply for the meal (see below).

2. Don’t come home for Thanksgiving. Some colleges are requiring or strongly encouraging students to not travel over Thanksgiving break in hopes of reducing the risk of bringing new cases back to campus in early December. While it’s hard to imagine not having your kid home for this important holiday, staying on campus may be the safest and least disruptive option, particularly if your student is just settling into the new COViD-induced routines on campus (including regular testing).

Not-so-good options:

3. Travel home for Thanksgiving for a brief visit and return to campus on Nov 29 or 30. This plan unfortunately increases risk on two fronts: Your kid brings COVID home to you (and elderly grandparents, yikes), *and* your kid brings a new case of COVID back to campus. With just a 4-7 day break, there isn’t time for quarantining and testing at home. And from the college’s perspective, all the hard work of the fall term to prevent and mitigate outbreaks goes down the drain if students travel out of the campus “bubble”.

4. Parents travel to college town to spend Thanksgiving with student: While this technically circumvents any restrictions on student travel, it brings all the same risks as Option #3: You bring a COVID case to campus via your kid, or you contract COVID during travel or while in the college town and bring it home. Not good.

It’s important to take into account your specific context and situation in making this decision. Are cases increasing on the college campus or in your town? How risky would travel itself be — flight, bus, or long drive is riskier than a short drive. Is your kid being tested regularly on campus? Important: Are any members of your household or any Thanksgiving guests at high risk for complications from COVID? If answers to these questions give you pause, best to pump the brakes on brief trips over the holiday.

If you’ve been following Dear Pandemic for a while, you know that we are all about harm reduction. If your family is going with Option 3, there are ways to make it as safe as possible. You guessed it — follow SMART rules!
Whether you are hosting Thanksgiving or traveling elsewhere, please consider following these guidelines. Remember that a college kid who has traveled home without time to quarantine or test is technically outside your “pod” or “bubble”. (See Dr. Birx’s warning above — this is hard to remember!)

SPACE: Stay spaced 6’ or more from others outside your pod.

MASK: Mask up all the time with anyone outside your pod.

AIR: Outside is best, or a well-ventilated indoor room. (See link below on using your garage!)

RESTRICT: Keep Thanksgiving gatherings small. Don’t let your family reunion become the next super-spreader event (see linked story below about a summer family reunion.)

TIME: Shorter gatherings are safer than long ones. Better to host a two-hour meal than a four-day weekend.

The Nerdy Girls get it: Changing up the routines for much-loved family rituals and holidays is really hard, especially when we want and need to see our kids and loved ones. Thanks for doing your part to keep everyone safe and sane as we head into the holiday (and flu!) season.

Links:

Testing didn’t prevent the White House cluster

Can I see my family at Thanksgiving?

Dr. Birx speech at Broad Institute

Nerdy-Girl-in-Chief Dr. Lindsey Leininger on using your garage for semi-outdoor entertaining

13-year-old spreads COVID at family reunion

Link to original FB post