As COVID-19 cases surge around the U.S., more universities and colleges plan to move all classes online after Thanksgiving break in late November, while others say they will allow students to return to campus.
The University of Pennsylvania, University of Arizona, University of California in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Syracuse University in New York, and the University of Michigan are among the increasing number of schools ending all in-person classes for the semester after Thanksgiving.
The University of Arizona will, too, switch to remote learning over the break, and like the University of California and many other schools, will make the dorms available for the remainder of the semester for those who don’t have alternate housing.
“It is such a major operation, safely, to get all the students back to campus, that you really cannot manage that more than twice a year,” explained Frederick M. Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University in Massachusetts and chief executive officer of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Washington.
“You bring them on board, [and] you keep them as safe as you can during the time they're there,” said Lawrence. “You send them all home [for holidays] … but then they stay home.”
In a non-pandemic year, students usually join their families for Thanksgiving, a harvest celebration involving a lot of food and televised college football games. Students typically return to campus for about a month until late December, when the semester ends for winter break. After three to four weeks of winter break, that include the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, students return to campus for the start of new classes in January.
But the pandemic has upended a campus calendar that has carried on for decades. Millions of students are normally on the move over Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, the most traveled U.S. holidays of the year, reported the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Because cases of COVID-19 are reaching record highs, schools are trying to mitigate the impact students might have on spreading the virus.
Most State University of New York (SUNY) schools will require students to submit a negative COVID-19 test before heading home for Thanksgiving. SUNY, with 415,572 students, is spread among 64 campuses around the state that hosts the second-largest population of international students, nearly 125,000. (New York University in New York City is the No. 1 destination for foreign students.)
"By requiring all students to test negative before leaving, we are implementing a smart, sensible policy that protects students' families and hometown communities and drastically reduces the chances of COVID-19 community spread," said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras in a press release.
Indiana University (IU) will require its 48,514 students to have exit testing as they head home for the Thanksgiving break. Last week (November 11), some IU students were suspended for celebrating in the streets after a football win. The week before, the university shut down its Delta Upsilon fraternity house through summer 2021, for hosting a large, unmasked Halloween party.
“Students will leave a state with skyrocketing new COVID-19 cases and some might sit next to grandparents a few days later,” tweeted Matt Cohen, enterprise reporter for the Indiana Daily Student news outlet.
The University of Missouri, another large Midwestern state university, changed its plan last week to online learning for its 29,843 students. The decision, announced November 12, came after a surge in COVID-19 cases in Missouri, according to University of Missouri System President Mun Y. Choi.
Until the surge, Missouri considered limited internet access at home, finances, and their COVID-19 case count when deciding to keep the campus open after the break, said University of Missouri Spokesperson Christian Basi.
“We have many students who rely on on-campus work to provide them with a source of income and if we were to close the campus not only would many of the students not be able to return, but there are some of those jobs that simply would stop,” said Basi.
“We have been managing the pandemic here on campus extremely well. Our active caseload has fallen about 90% since it peaked over the Labor Day weekend” in September, said Basi.
The University of Maryland (UMD), which had planned to bring students back after the break, also retracted their decision last week and will be completely online after Thanksgiving for its 40,521 students, according to an email sent by UMD President Darryll Pines to students.
UMD and the University of Wisconsin are among other schools that have told students who travel for the break that they will not be allowed to return to campus. The university will switch to all online instruction, but campus will remain open for students who don’t have housing options.
The University of Georgia (38,920 students) and Youngstown State University (11,788) in Ohio will allow students to return to campus in person after the November 26 Thanksgiving holiday, they announced.
The University of Alabama (37,842 students), too, will resume classes after the break, and will offer exit testing for the Thanksgiving and winter breaks for students who request it.
Lawrence said testing and quarantine are key to controlling the spread of COVID-19 among college campuses.
“If students are going to be coming back, there has to be a combination of testing if they're going to be on campus, and quarantining, even if they're just going to be off-campus in off-campus apartments,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence said because of how quickly the virus spreads, universities returning after the break should implement a series of protocols for students.
“It's too much back and forth. That's too much interaction with people outside the bubble and coming back to campus,” said Lawrence.
“The model has to be a big break and then come January, February, a replay of the entire operation schools did in August and September, to bring students back to campus safely,” said Lawrence.
The American College Health Association issued an advisory in October to help colleges and universities navigate the end of the semester. The U.S. does not have a national plan for higher education and COVID-19.
Four sources are compiling information about colleges and COVID-19, including case-tracking maps: The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i), and Inside Higher Education.
Most international students face holidays alone or without family. Some schools are encouraging all their students not to go home for the break, and are offering alternative activities and turkey meals, the typical centerpiece on most American dinner tables for Thanksgiving.
Iuliia Rychkova is an international doctoral student at the University of Mississippi, which will end its fall semester before the Thanksgiving break.
“I'm going to stay in Oxford,” where the university has its main campus, she said.
“Honestly, I'm an international student, right? So it's kind of pricey to go home for a month,” said Rychkova, who is from Novokuznetsk, Russia, which lies east of Kazakhstan and west of Mongolia.