This year has been full of sacrifices and impossible choices, but it’s not quite done with us yet. If you have kids who are away at college, you may now be facing the pandemic’s latest conundrum: Do you have them come home and risk everybody infecting each other, or do you tell them to stay put and ride out the holiday on their own?
As you work your way through the decision of whether—or how—to get them home, here are some things to keep in mind.
Start with your own risk analysis
We’re just over a week from Thanksgiving, which means that how your college student has been operating in the world for these recent weeks matters a lot in determining how much risk they pose to you and other family members. If their classes have been mostly virtual and they’re not going out to restaurants or parties, and they’re coming home to fairly young, healthy parents and siblings—they’re on one end of the risk spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum are students who have been bar-hopping as cases climb in their community, those attending in-person classes, and students eating with their friends in the cafeteria—and their elderly grandparents will be sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table with you.
“Look at what their college reported in regard to current infections and how many infections have been reported in the area where the college is located, especially if the student lives off-campus,” Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said in an email. “Also, have a frank and honest discussion with your student about their recent activities and potential for exposure.”
You’re not on campus with them, so there’s no way to be sure how careful they are actually being. But you know your child and you can probably make a good guess about whether they’re being as careful as they claim to be and are staying as distanced from others as possible.
Set some ground rules for when they get home
The Thanksgiving break is traditionally a time for college-age students to reconnect with their high school friends. Unfortunately, a bunch of teenagers and 20-somethings converging in your hometown—having just traveled from all over creation—is exactly what we don’t want right now.
Set clear boundaries about how they will socialize while they’re home for the holiday, and be conservative here. Small, outdoor, masked, socially distanced get-togethers might be okay; but if you have vulnerable family members, you may want them to keep all catch-ups virtual this year.
How you stage your home for the big dinner can be important, too. If the weather doesn’t permit you to be outside, spread out as much as possible indoors (with everyone wearing masks whenever they’re not actively eating or drinking), and keep your college students as distanced as possible from high-risk relatives.
“Families also may want to consider re-introducing the ‘kids table’ this year for students returning home or who are at in-person schools to keep them away from family members who are at high risk,” Cennimo says.
Remember that negative tests are not a guarantee
Getting tested before they leave campus or as soon as they arrive in your town is good for catching some positive cases; but it’s important to remember that a negative test is but a snapshot of a specific moment in time.
“If a student gets tested a week before Thanksgiving, it will not account for any exposure in the week after,” Cennimo says. “If a student arrives on a plane late Tuesday night and receives a negative test on Wednesday morning, that student could still test positive ten days later if they were exposed during travel. That student should not be hugging their grandmother or be closely around her or without a mask simply because they had a recent negative test.”
Talk about the safest way to travel
There is no zero-risk way to travel right now, but there are some things they can do to cut down the exposure risk incrementally. Driving solo and minimizing stops as much as possible is the preferred method. If they don’t have a car, having a family member pick them up is the next best option.
“If they must travel via train or plane, they should use the restroom before arrival at the station or terminal to reduce risk of exposure,” Cennimo says. “They should wear a mask the entire time they are traveling, try not to eat or drink, and use hand sanitizer frequently. When possible, they should space out where they are sitting.”
Also, if they’re traveling from out-of-state, be sure they adhere to your state’s quarantine regulations for visitors, as well as their own state’s requirements for testing or quarantining upon their return to school.
You can still change your mind
Thanksgiving is still a week away, which means everyone has a week to decide that the risk simply isn’t worth it—and if ever it were okay to pull the plug on a visit at the last minute, it is now. Stay informed about the spread in both your area and theirs, keep in regular communication about your plans, and cancel them as needed.
Join our parenting community on Facebook!