If Your College Kids Are Coming Home, They Need To Wear A Mask

by Clint Edwards

I work in student services at Oregon State University, and I was chatting with my director the other day about how many of our students are planning to travel home for Thanksgiving. In previous years, it’s been a happy thought, but this year, it was giving both of us a pretty serious panic attack. Thousands of our students were planning to head to various locations all over the United States for a few days, and then head home — and who knows how many of them would be bringing COVID-19 along for the ride? This same story is taking place at every university in the nation.

Naturally, those of you reading this with college-aged children have to be worried about this as well. And according to the experts, the safest way to celebrate the holidays with family this year is to do it remotely. Yes, I know, it’s not the same. A Zoom Thanksgiving does not have that close-knit feel. But the fact is, 2020 isn’t the same as others, and although we have been living with COVID-19 for almost a year now, it does appear that the worst is yet to come. As of Wednesday, nearly 62,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized around the country, surpassing the highs of the midsummer and spring surges. This is double the numbers hospitalized as of late September.

But if your college age child is coming home, there are several steps you can take to lower the chances of infection, and I don’t think any of them will surprise you. The first is to get your college kid tested before he leaves campus, and once he arrives home.

According to NPR, many colleges are doing exit testing before students leave. However, you can’t rely on testing alone. Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health & Science University told NPR, “A test is just a snapshot of the day it is taken. One negative test does not mean that you are home free.” And if you don’t believe me, take a look at what happened with the Baylor University football team in October. According to ESPN, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades reported 28 active cases of COVID-19 among its football players and 14 active cases among football staff members, which led to the decision to postpone its scheduled game against Oklahoma State. The likely reason for the outbreak? A false negative test.

Once your child is home from college, and tested, social distancing and mask wearing needs to be a priority. And I know, for reasons I’ve never been able to fully understand, mask wearing and social distancing has become a political issue, when it really shouldn’t be. This is about public health and safety, not republicans and democrats. But here we are, and I know for a fact the last Thanksgiving I spent with my family, we mostly argued about politics. I can only imagine how hot things will get when you insist your MAGA cousin wear a mask and sit six feet away. But the reality is, if you’re going to be around anyone at all that doesn’t live in your household over Thanksgiving break, mask wearing and social distancing is a must – for everyone.

Guzman-Cottrill with OHSU advises, “The only time [family members] should be removing their mask should be when they are eating and eating in a separate room, I think, is the safest decision, or eating outdoors.”

Now, if you live in an area where eating outdoors for Thanksgiving is an option, that might be one of the best things you can do. Outdoor activities are safer because airflow helps dilute the virus, thus reducing the risk of infection. Some of the suggestions I’ve seen online is to eat Thanksgiving dinner around a campfire. Or perhaps play cornhole or horse shoes outside instead of putting a puzzle together or playing a contested game Monopoly in the house. (Let’s be honest, that might also save some arguments. Last time my family played Monopoly it nearly ended in a brawl.)

The simple reality is, this year, things are very different. Yes, there are some very promising vaccines in the final stages of development, but those won’t come until the end of the year. And they might not be fully distributed until well into 2021. Infections are on the rise, and sadly, that means that having a traditional family Thanksgiving meal is now a risky endeavor.

I get it, you miss your college kid. Yes, you want to give them all the hugs and kisses, and chances are, they haven’t been coming home to visit nearly as much as you’d like. But this virus doesn’t care if you miss your child. It will take any advantage it can get. So if you have a college kid coming home this Thanksgiving, take the proper precautions. The goal here is that everyone will make it to the next Thanksgiving. And hopefully, next year’s festivities will look a little more like they should.