As Thanksgiving approaches, The Ohio State University is trying to accomplish two potentially conflicting goals: send students back home, but don't contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
This year, conversations about going home for the holidays look very different. Instead of thinking about the cost of plane tickets or finding a ride home, students are comparing positivity rates and how many of their family members are at-risk for the coronavirus.
"It seems like there was almost no decision to be made," says Ph.D. student Tyler Morrison. "It seems like COVID had made the decision for us this year."
Morrison is getting his degree in mechanical engineering, and his fiancé Alexa Henderson is a fourth-year medical student. They’re both from Kansas, and after careful consideration decided not to go home for the holidays this year.
Since they live in off-campus housing, they have a little bit more flexibility to celebrate on their own. But Henderson says she worries about students living on campus, who are being encouraged by the university to go home as early as this Friday. Ohio State is closing residence halls on November 25.
"Even if you are doing as best as you can, they’re going home to states that may have higher positivity rates, and to families that may or may not be following the guidelines," Henderson says.
Ohio State has been able to keep their COVID-19 positivity rates low, in part thanks to their testing program – on-campus students get tested every week, and off-campus students get tested about once every three weeks. While the rest of Ohio is surging with record-breaking case numbers, and a seven-day positivity rate of 12.8%, the university has been able to maintain about a 2% positivity rate for students.
As the university started assessing holiday travel, they created a test-out program to make sure students wouldn’t take COVID-19 home with them.
"They can get a test as they exit, basically one to two days before they leave," says Dr. Bill Miller of the College of Public Health. "And that can be done essentially on demand, over the last few days before Thanksgiving."
Miller says the success of the test-out program doesn’t only hinge on testing: It’s important that students quarantine as much as possible after the test is taken to make sure they don’t contract COVID-19 before they leave.
"They have to really think about, 'Is it worth me exposing my family to what I’ve been doing?', which is why we emphasize that notion of, before you go back home, really draw back in and sequester as much as you can," Miller says.
While travel is generally not encouraged from an epidemiological stand-point, and the city of Columbus is advising residents to not leave the state, the university is trying to lower its population density to slow the spread of the virus on campus.
"We’re encouraging students to head home for the holidays as soon as they can," says Dave Isaacs with Ohio State's Office of Student Life. "As they wrap up their course work, it would be helpful to de-densify the campus, have fewer people on campus and when there’s fewer people, there’s less chance of contracting COVID-19."
For on-campus students who don’t have somewhere to go for the holidays, residence halls will still be made available. Those students who do go home are encouraged to stay there until the new year – student move-in for the spring semester isn't scheduled until January 18, 2021.
"The first two weeks of spring semester classes are going to be via virtual delivery, and students will return to campus after that," Isaacs says. "But all of those decisions are pending the status of COVID-19, Gov. DeWine, state and local health experts, in case other decisions need to be made."
University officials hope most students go home, and stay home, for the holidays. For those like Morrison and Henderson, they'll have to figure out a new way to celebrate without the typical Thanksgiving traditions.
"We’re not especially ambitious cooks," Morrison says with a laugh.