As the holidays approach, colleges and universities are warning students returning home to remain vigilant about health guidelines, think hard about who they see and consider whether their travel is truly necessary.
“Whenever you start moving people around, you create opportunity for the virus to spread from one community to the other,” said Donna Petersen, chair of the University of South Florida’s COVID-19 Task Force and dean of its College of Public Health.
“I think what’s unfortunate is that we are seeing this rise in cases at a time when people look forward to gathering with families and friends, spending long hours together,” she said. “And that just really isn’t wise right now. ... This virus is relentless and it’s not done with us.”
At USF, students are being encouraged to take as many precautions as possible, said Dr. Joseph Puccio, director for student health services. Before traveling, he said, students should take their flu shots, isolate for two weeks if possible and get tested for COVID-19 before leaving. He also recommends that they isolate for two weeks and get tested 5 to 7 days after arriving at their destination, and again before returning. He urged students to wear both masks and face shields when traveling by air, and wipe all surfaces.
“We want students to be proactive and think about where they are going back to,” he said, referring to grandparents and other vulnerable family members. “They may want to reconsider going back home. ... What is the area like there? Would it be more risky for them to go there? If they don’t absolutely have to go, maybe they should reconsider going.”
The university’s dorms technically never close, Petersen said, and every year some number of dorms remain open for students who are not able to leave campus over the holidays. This year will be the same.
“It’s not ideal, but maybe a Zoom Thanksgiving is not a bad idea,” Petersen said.
Ashley Carter and Alisha Kurian, freshmen roommates at USF in Tampa, will be leaving campus shortly before Thanksgiving. Carter won’t be coming back until January, but Kurian plans to return from Fort Myers for finals and before leaving again.
“I have three younger siblings, so taking finals at home would not be ideal for me,” she said. “So I was like I can just come back and my dorm will be empty so I can study.”
While both Carter and Kurian said they’ve felt safe on campus this semester, they worry about whether other students will continue to follow guidelines over the holidays.
“I would just want people to be distant before they come back so they’re not bringing things back with them,” Kurian said.
Since the start of the fall semester, USF has reported 636 cases of COVID-19 and, like Florida’s other state universities, has been offering a blend of in-person, online and hybrid courses. In the spring, the university plans to offer 57 percent of courses with some in-person component.
Petersen said USF, which currently remains in a modified second phase of its re-opening plan, will continue to monitor COVID-19 trends and adapt as needed.
“We’ve said all along we’re going to be driven by data on the ground,” she said. “If the conditions warrant it and we think we need to go back to Phase I or pre-Phase I, that’s what we will do.”
As the semester wore on, she said, the university became more adept at making quick transitions like turning a regular class into remote mode if an instructor tested positive but was still able to teach.
At the last Florida Board of Governors’ meeting, chairman Syd Kitson reiterated the state’s commitment to leading the nation by “preparing to provide as many in-person classes this spring as CDC guidelines will allow.”
At the University of Florida, controversy ensued after the school announced plans to offer as many in-person courses in the spring as it did last year. Students protested outside the home of president Kent Fuchs.
Since March, UF has reported 4,439 positive cases of the virus among students and university staff. It also keeps a number of dorms open between the holidays, and this year 120 students have requested housing between the fall and spring semesters, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said.
Dr. Mike Lauzardo, who leads the university’s screening and testing efforts, said he is an advocate for testing but reminds students that it’s not an all-clear.
“As much as I’m a proponent of testing … we don’t want to overestimate the value of a test and remember that a negative test is not a party passport,” he said. “There are still rules and things we have to maintain to avoid spreading it throughout the state and the communities they’re going back to.”
Though the weeks ahead may seem dire, Lauzardo encourages students to tap into the spirit of the holidays and stay cautious.
“Gratitude is the foundation of optimism,” he said. “The next few weeks are going to be tough. It’s going to be a tough holiday season for many people. But the medical cavalry is on the way. Vaccines are coming. Things are going to change dramatically in 2021.”
He said small actions taken now, like wearing a two-layer mask and not using it as a “crumb-catcher,” can determine the outcome of the virus. And he encourages students to lead by example if they’re returning to families who aren’t serious about the virus.
“We can make a difference,” he said. “We don’t have to accept the fact that another 100,000, 200,000 people are going to die from this.”