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College students’ Thanksgiving plans have public health officials worried

Dennis Wieboldt III, a junior at Boston College, said the holiday is a chance for him to go home and see his 87-year-old grandmother, who lives in an assisted living facility.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Adri Lanza is yearning to spend a traditional Thanksgiving at home in Pennsylvania with her mom making empanadas and pernil, a Puerto Rican pork dish reserved for celebrations.

Instead, she’ll be in her Northeastern University dorm room, microwaving baked potatoes and spaghetti with her roommate.

Lanza, 18, a first-year student, had worried that traveling during the pandemic, particularly as coronavirus cases here and in her home state skyrocket, was growing riskier by the day — a fear realized last week when her mother contracted the illness.

“It’s just going to be hard knowing that I can’t help her at all from [Massachusetts],” Lanza said.


Across the Boston area and the country, college campuses will fall quiet as tens of thousands of students depart for Thanksgiving break, the first major holiday since the fall semester began. Many will head home to their families, others to a friend’s house to celebrate, and some groups plan to rent a house for the holidays.

The mass exodus has raised fears among public health officials that students will carry the virus with them as they scatter, accelerating the contagion’s already dangerous pace and potentially causing outbreaks on campus upon their return.

Students could also become infected during their travels and unwittingly pass the illness to relatives gathered for Thanksgiving, said Gerri Taylor, a member of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force and a retired director of Bentley University’s health center.

“You’ve got to think about the people at home,” Taylor said. The association recommends that students remain on campus if they plan to resume in-person classes after the break. If students plan to travel, they should quarantine for two weeks before any family gatherings and get tested before they leave campus and four days after they return home.

“It’s not going to be the Thanksgiving we have normally had," Taylor said. "Wishful thinking isn’t going to help.”


Complicating matters, colleges have taken different approaches to the holiday and offered varying guidance to students about if and how to return to campus.

MIT and Gordon College are encouraging students to leave campus and finish the semester remotely. Other schools, including Boston College, are allowing students to return to campus after break if they remained in Massachusetts. Tufts University has instructed students they cannot travel during Thanksgiving break if they want to remain in the dorms or take in-person classes for the rest of the semester. And Northeastern University and Boston University are allowing students to travel but requiring them to quarantine and test negative for the virus before they attend in-person classes.

“We expect that thousands of students will be with us on campus this year," said Renata Nyul, a spokeswoman for Northeastern. "Students who travel home for Thanksgiving will be expected to adhere to our strict testing and quarantine protocols upon return, just as we required when students arrived in August.”

Colleges in Massachusetts have kept the pandemic in check for most of the fall semester with regular testing and strict rules on wearing masks and social distancing. But in the week ending Nov. 10, colleges across the state reported 566 positive cases, up sharply from 362 cases the week before and 175 cases at the end of October, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Nationally, coronavirus cases are soaring, with an average of than more than 150,000 new cases a day reported in the past week. Nearly 70,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest number to date, according to the COVID Tracking Project.


Colleges should be “more worried than most of them are” heading into the Thanksgiving break, said A. David Paltiel, a Yale University public health professor who has been advising college administrators on their virus plans.

“There is a need to be moving swiftly to ensure that colleges make the return home as safe for students, for their families, and for the public as possible,” Paltiel said.

Officials at Boston-area colleges said they have been regularly testing students throughout the fall semester and will do so before they leave for Thanksgiving. But not all colleges can afford extensive testing before students leave. And a test doesn’t guarantee safety — it only offers a health snapshot at that moment and students could be exposed during travel, health officials said.

“There’s no perfect answer,” said Larry Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, a regional accrediting agency. Schall has been visiting campuses in recent weeks and talking to presidents about Thanksgiving plans.

Some campuses have tightened testing and quarantine protocols for students who return after the break, and warned them they could face penalties, including suspension, if they are caught lying about their Thanksgiving travel.

Many institutions are also developing more on-campus activities in hopes that students will decide against traveling.

At Wellesley College, students taking in-person classes have been asked to stay on campus through Thanksgiving break. The college is planning yoga classes and movie nights, and setting up card-making and letter-writing stations so students can send notes home to their loved ones, officials said.


Dennis Wieboldt III, a junior at Boston College, said he would prefer to stay on campus with his friends, but the holiday is a rare occasion to see his 87-year-old grandmother, who lives in an assisted living facility. His parents are urging him to come home and finish the semester from there. They are following strict quarantining guidelines to bring his grandmother to their house for Thanksgiving, and as an added precaution are driving up to Boston to pick Wieboldt up from college.

BC has been testing regularly and the family feels safe with him coming home, said his father, Dennis Wieboldt Jr.

“We tried to think as a family what makes the best sense,” he said. “It’s been a crazy year, we don’t want to lose sight of family.”

Other students said they need a break from campus after being cooped-up for the semester and are eager to get away.

Elise Losardo, 20, a junior at Gordon College in Wenham, said she has been busy with her classes and club activities, and is ready to spend a quiet holiday with her parents in northern New Jersey.

Losardo plans to take the bus to New York and then a train to New Jersey. She said she’ll get tested before she leaves and feels confident she will be safe.


“I know other schools are not doing as much," she said. "I guess we’ll see what happens.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her @fernandesglobe.