Winston Tan via shutterstock
Beautiful fall colors outside Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University on November 3, 2018 (Winston Tan via shutterstock)

After a unique semester marked by COVID-19 testing and hybrid classes, it is almost time for college students to return home, but with spikes on many Connecticut campuses, some students could be bringing COVID-19 home with them.

“When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection,” said Dr. Anothny Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on NBC’s “TODAY.”

Fauci issued this warning back in September, calling the decision to send students home during an outbreak, “the worst thing you can do.”

As of Nov. 11, there have been 2,171 cases of COVID-19 at Connecticut’s 20 colleges and universities according to the New York Times.  At UConn’s Storrs campus, the total number of cases for residential students to date is 281 and 50 are active. At Quinnipiac University, there are 422 cases and there are 321 active cases in isolation. Since the start of the semester, Yale University has recorded 184 positive cases.

All UConn students received a letter from Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Eleanor Daughtery on Nov. 13, announcing that all students would be exit tested before returning home for the semester.

“We don’t have the COVID spread under control,” Daughtery wrote. “I need us to do more to ensure that we are able to return home to our families healthy. The bottom line: UConn is implementing a modified quarantine for our entire residential campus beyond the buildings already quarantined, and every student must receive a PCR exit test before leaving for Thanksgiving break.”

Most schools across the country have opted to send students home before Thanksgiving so that they can finish the semester remotely. With schools like Quinnipiac considered a “red-level” risk and Yale considered “orange-level,” some parents fear that their kids will come home carrying COVID-19.

“Students were tested before leaving home so that the school could protect the community,” said Jill Simms, mother of a senior at Quinnipiac. “Similarly, they should be tested before coming home to protect families, especially those of us with pre-existing conditions.  We need to know what we are dealing with and if we need to quarantine our kids.”

Some Quinnipiac students already have left, though the university has not formally sent them home. Resident assistants have emailed students to ask for when they plan to leave, if it is before the set move-out date of Nov. 24.

Students who are still on campus were tested Monday Nov. 9 through Wednesday Nov. 11.

“We recommend that they take advantage of the COVID-19 testing the university is offering this week before leaving campus, and have also shared the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s recommendations with all students who have returned home for the remainder of the semester about quarantining at home and getting tested to protect the health of family, friends and their local community,” said John Morgan, associate vice president for public relations at Quinnipiac.

At UConn, regular testing will continue up until Thanksgiving break university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said, so that students will have had a recent test when it is time to return home. The process is more complicated for the 37 students in isolation in Storrs.

“For students who are still in quarantine or isolation as we approach the Thanksgiving break, our Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) team will work with each of them on ways to finish those periods on campus if they cannot quarantine or receive care at home,” Reitz said. “That may include situations such as when they have an immunocompromised family member, if they live too far away to safely travel without having contact with others, and similar circumstances.”

Simms said her daughter was tested on Nov. 9, and returned home shortly after.

“We would have had her stop on her way to get tested even if QU wasn’t testing her this week,” Simms said.

Given the rise in cases at Quinnipiac, some students believe they should not return home until they are tested.

“I think it’s important because someone should know if they have it or not to prevent bringing it back to their local community and hometown —  especially since the rise in cases,” said Nicole McIsaac, a sophomore at Quinnipiac. “This is the only way we will stop the spread and save lives.”

Under the red alert at Quinnipiac, students are not allowed to interact with anyone other than their roommates, but are encouraged to go outside for fresh air breaks. The dining halls are only open for takeout.

“I have left because I didn’t have any roommates left and got a negative test result,” said Brenna Rose, a junior at Quinnipiac. “I didn’t feel safe going to the cafe and didn’t want to cook every night, I missed human contact.”

Many of the cases at Quinnipiac are suspected to be linked to a gathering at Anthony’s Ocean View over Halloween weekend. The university sent home about 20 students who attended the party, but WTNH reported that about 500 students from Quinnipiac and Southern Connecticut State University attended.

“I (went home) because several of the people on my floor tested positive after going to Anthony’s and I didn’t feel safe there anymore,” said freshman Carly Reagan.

At Sacred Heart University, which has seen 212 positive cases since the start of the semester, students can opt to be tested before they return home on top of the regular weekly testing.

“We are going to offer to test students a week before they go home to allow us to have time to get results,” said Gary MacNamara, co-chair of the COVID-19 task force at Sacred Heart. “We recognize there are a lot of students that might be going home to a high-risk family member.”

Not all colleges have the testing capacity to test every single student before they move out. At Central Connecticut State University, 25% of students are tested each week, but the week before move-out, these numbers will increase to 50% of students, according to Janice Palmer, interim associate vice president for communications and logistics.

Eastern Connecticut State University will continue to test 25% of students each week, as it has done all semester, according to Edward Osborn, director of university relations.

At Sacred Heart as well as at Eastern, students are being told to not pack up their rooms entirely for move out. Administration is planning for a return to campus in the spring, despite the climbing cases.

“If conditions allow, we are going to continue with the spring semester as we have done with the fall,” MacNamara said. “We know and recognize—and I think students and families recognize—that there may be some modifications in what that looks like.”

Nonetheless, some parents are frustrated with the increase of cases that cut the on-campus experience short.

“The school should be able to identify possible causes of the rise in cases on campus and when they do, they need to offer consequences to the students who put the university at risk and caused the semester in person to end abruptly,” Simms said.