T.S. Wolff, a 20-year-old student at Reed College, is looking forward to being home for Thanksgiving.
“I am excited to go back home in the sense that I’m looking forward to seeing my family and to spend some time with them,” said Wolff, who lives in an on-campus apartment at the private Portland college.
“As far as safety, and how things are going to change, I’m conflicted,” they said.
Wolff’s family lives only about a 3.5-hour drive from Portland, in Washington state, which they acknowledged was a shorter journey than some students are making home for Thanksgiving.
Wolff said they will be taking as many precautions as they can, including continuing social distancing and wearing masks in public places. But leaving a relatively controlled environment like living on-campus is daunting.
“I do feel like we have more access to certain resources here,” Wolff said of Reed.
Thanksgiving has long been a time when students travel home from college campuses to see family and friends they haven’t been around for months. But the safety of travel is a major concern for students, as well as colleges and universities, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Reed College tests about 700 students who live in on-campus housing twice weekly. The college also conducts tests out of a pool of another nearly 700 students who live off-campus, but who are regularly on campus either for class or work; about 200 of those students are randomly selected for testing each week. Faculty and staff who work on-campus are also regularly tested.
“I really have not heard of other schools doing quite as much testing as us, especially other schools of our size,” Madison Riethman, Reed’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said. “We have the capacity right now to do upwards of 1,700 tests a week, and in comparison with our student population, that’s huge.”
Nineteen Reed students, staff and faculty members have tested positive for coronavirus since June 1, according to the college’s online dashboard.
“It’s the combination of all these different things we’ve been doing that has overall made a safe environment,” Riethman said. “I think that our community really does take this seriously, and I think these low transmission rates on campus is a testament to the dedication of our community to those essential public health protection measures.”
But tight controls that are possible at a small college like Reed are not feasible at larger schools, and such oversight disappears as students travel home.
Taking precautions as students arrive and leave campuses
When fall term classes began a few months ago at Oregon colleges and universities, local communities worried about out-of-state students bringing COVID-19 with them. In Northwest college towns like Eugene and Pullman, COVID-19 cases increased when students returned to campus.
Now, as many students head home for Thanksgiving, postsecondary institutions are trying to prevent students from taking coronavirus home with them, or bringing it back when they return.
Some colleges, including Reed and the University of Oregon, are requiring students get tested for COVID-19 before they leave campus, while others are offering tests without requiring them.
Oregon State University is attempting to test more than 10,000 students this week through its TRACE-COVID-19 project. The TRACE project normally tests as many as 1,000 students, staff and faculty per week across OSU’s different campuses, on a voluntary basis.
OSU has reported 230 coronavirus cases since July 1 among students, faculty and staff affiliated with its Corvallis campus, according to its online data dashboard. It has reported seven cases affiliated with its Bend campus in that same timeframe.
“We’ve invited all students enrolled at our OSU Corvallis campus, at our OSU Cascades campus in Bend, and students who are living in the Newport area who may take a course in marine studies at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, to be tested,” Steve Clark, vice president of university relations and marketing at OSU, said.
Clark said that pre-Thanksgiving testing is widely available, but not mandatory.
When residence halls opened in September at OSU, like at other institutions, students were required to be tested as they moved into their dorms, Clark said.
Since then, along with voluntary testing, the university has implemented regular wastewater testing — analyzing wastewater from its Corvallis, Bend and Newport campuses for the COVID-19 virus and conducting tests if those analyses show a spike.
Clark said the university does not closely track where its students reside, as most of OSU’s classes are being offered remotely and online. That and a reduced number of students living on-campus in OSU housing — about 40% of the typical number — help explain why the university does not mandate regular coronavirus testing.
Colleges hope students stay vigilant in a less controlled environment
One of the bigger campus clusters of coronavirus cases in the Pacific Northwest was at University of Oregon in Eugene.
Ryan Laws, 20, is a resident assistant at UO.
“As someone who lives on campus, I think you have a little more assurance about things just because you are in that mandatory testing program,” Laws said, referring to tests he’s had to take every week.
As of Thursday, 607 UO community members had tested positive for coronavirus since June 1. The bulk of that number — 534 — comes from off-campus students.
“I don’t interact much with people off-campus besides my close group of friends just because that’s where the majority of parties are at,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot riskier when you’re off campus, I believe, than when you’re on-campus.”
The University of Oregon in Eugene has required all students living in residence halls to be tested for COVID-19 this week. The university is also offering free, voluntary testing for students living off-campus who are planning to travel, as capacity permits.
Laws said of the residents in his hall that have expressed anxiety about traveling: “I think people are a little less nervous about the actual going home and they themselves getting everyone sick, but I think people are more nervous about just the traveling experience itself and what it’s like to fly home through all of this and just being in airports and different things like that.”
Laws plans to drive home for Thanksgiving, to Central Point in Southern Oregon.
For Lewis & Clark College in Portland, like at OSU, testing is not mandatory for students traveling home for the holiday, but it’s hosting regular testing clinics and conducting wastewater testing.
Roy Kaufmann, director of public relations at Lewis & Clark said about 400 students signed up for a testing clinic this week.
He said of the hundreds of students who didn’t get tested on campus, it would make sense for them to get tested at home.
“You can have somebody do a test before they get on the plane, but they’re also in a shuttle or they’re traveling in an Uber to the airport, and then getting on the plane,” Kaufmann said. “There’s a lot of exposure risk in that travel.”
The Oregon Health Authority has said traveling by car is the lowest-risk option for people, if they do choose to travel for the holidays.
“For many students it isn’t realistic to remain on campus, and many colleges are switching to online learning after Thanksgiving,” the Oregon Health Authority wrote in a newsletter earlier this week directed to college students traveling for the holiday. “If you intend to come home, it is important to carefully plan the visit.”
The return to campus after Thanksgiving
Many students share the health authority’s worries about traveling home — and back.
Wolff at Reed, who is driving home to Washington, said their friends who are traveling by plane to farther destinations definitely have concerns.
“Given the crazy amount of spike in cases we’ve seen in many different states, it’s not something that people are excited about, especially the fact that they’re using these forms of transit to get back home to their families,” they said.
Wolff said they’re a little nervous about returning to campus with students who have traveled to different places, though they’re generally reassured by the steps Reed College is taking. Those include encouraging students to self-quarantine for two weeks before traveling back to campus and continuing mandatory testing.
Like most other institutions in Oregon, Reed is switching to conducting all of its courses, and final exams, remotely after Thanksgiving break. Reed and Lewis & Clark students who leave for Thanksgiving must stay home with their families until the next term starts in January — unless they have an extenuating circumstance necessitating a return to campus earlier.
“Getting students who go home for Thanksgiving and stay home for the better part of eight weeks until they come back in January to be as conscientious at home as they are on campus, that is our number one priority, and it’s also a tall order,” said Kaufmann, of Lewis & Clark. “So, we’re really hoping that students will remain vigilant even when they are home.”
OSU and UO are also switching to all remote courses after Thanksgiving, though students have the choice to return to campus to finish out the term if they want.
“Given that we know that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spiking, we’ve asked our students to basically stay in place, to hunker down over Thanksgiving,” Clark with OSU said, “in between now and when they return for winter term, to put things on hold and put their health and the community’s health as their priority.”
Laws at UO said he will return to campus after Thanksgiving, to continue work as a resident assistant.
Even with the stress that comes with traveling during the pandemic, Wolff at Reed said it’s been worth it to be living on-campus with the amount of coronavirus-related resources available and, for the most part a sense of safety and security that comes with that.
“I’ve felt pretty safe,” Wolff said. “The fact that we’re getting tested so regularly is a big factor in why I’m feeling safe, but I’ve also been feeling very pleased with the amount of compliance I’ve seen with people walking around… It’s not perfect. I don’t think it was ever going to be, but it’s certainly more than I was expecting, and that makes me happy.”